Shining a light on the deaf community – one coffee at a time


By: Katherine Snyder

NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y. – The Deaf community is an important part of our society, making improving our communications with them a pertinent topic. American Sign Language, also known as ASL, is the official language used to communicate among those who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH). Recently, Starbucks opened up their first ever ASL-speaking store located in Washington D.C.

This store includes more images, as well as signs that show customers how to use ASL to order certain beverages and products. They also include an ordering tablet for those who are not fluent in ASL that are DHH. All employees that work at this location are fully fluent in ASL, as well as English so customers that are or are not DHH can go to this location. Starbucks based their location in Washington near Gallaudet University, a 150-year-old institution and the world’s only university designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Such a large company promoting inclusivity of DHH customers is a huge step for both the Deaf and hearing communities. I decided to sit down with Nannette Harmon, the director of the ASL and deaf studies department here at NU, to see how she feels about this new implementation and how it is going to affect our society, as well as Deaf culture.

Harmon is D/deaf herself due to an autoimmune disease, and is fully fluent in ASL and teaches Introduction to American Sign Language and American Deaf Culture here at NU.

“The exposure that Starbucks is providing for D/deaf culture is amazing,” said Harmon. “This is bringing so much press and is finally shining a light on the Deaf community. Starbucks is not only providing ASL, but Starbucks is respecting hearing people by providing alternatives to sign communication, including iPads to type in their order.” Thus, people who don’t use ASL can communicate there with no problems.

Harmon described how, as of right now, ASL on the NU campus has become one of the biggest minors students pursue.

“Every semester, we have approximately 170 students who take ASL 100, and after taking the course usually half or more will declare a minor,” Harmon said. “Our program is important mostly in part that students will graduate from here knowing how to communicate and interact with those who are deaf, as we provide students with actual conversational skills to interact with them.”

Despite all the amazing support and progress, she also expresses the hardships people in the DHH community face.

“The [Americans with Disabilities Act] was passed in 1990 in order to make our society equitable for people with a disability such as deafness, but sadly the community is having a hard time in their fight for accessibility,” she said. “This accessibility is so important to anyone with a disability … and people need to be more aware of the struggles they face.”

Harmon emphasized that learning ASL is important for our society. The community has a long way to go in fighting for their right to accessibility, but Starbucks taking this small, yet powerful initiative is just one step closer to more chains grasping onto this concept. Harmon is very hopeful that this leap Starbucks took will create a chain reaction for other businesses, and the NU campus as a whole.


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