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US businesses begin to increase services for deaf people

Why We Wrote This

Everyday experiences that people without disabilities take for granted are sometimes difficult to navigate for deaf persons. But a growing number of businesses are looking to include deaf persons by offering services that take their needs into account.

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A Starbucks apron shows sign language letters spelling the company's name. Starbucks will open its first Signing Store in the United States this October, part of a larger trend in businesses across the country that are seeking to improve access for deaf persons.

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Tax preparer Joshua Beal knows well the challenges that a communications barrier can present when it comes to understanding tax policy and the Internal Revenue Service. Add in the extra challenge of being deaf, and overcoming those barriers can seem insurmountable. But now, some companies are beginning to address those needs; Mr. Beal's company DeafTax, which assists deaf people in navigating the world of tax law, is just one example. This summer, Wells Fargo announced it would launch an online financial education series provided in ASL. Deaf-owned and -operated San Francisco pizza company Mozzeria recently won a grant to franchise. And Starbucks has announced the October opening of its first “signing store” in the United States where all employees will be fluent in ASL. The company will hire between 20 and 25 deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing employees to staff that store. “More than 70 percent of the deaf community is either unemployed or underemployed, [and] there is a large untapped economic base and talent pool of deaf people,” Brandi Rarus, vice president of public relations, engagement, and policy for the nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) says. “It’s wonderful to see increasing recognition of the benefits of these initiatives.”

Tax preparer Joshua Beal knows well the challenges that a communications barrier can present when it comes to understanding tax policy and the Internal Revenue Service. Add in the extra challenge of being deaf, and overcoming those barriers can seem insurmountable.

“We have many deaf clients who are overwhelmed by 10- to 15-page-long letters from the IRS regarding a deficiency or outstanding issue,” says Mr. Beal, who is deaf himself. “What most people don’t realize is that the language of finance is almost another language, so many people are challenged by financial language even if they are not deaf.”

Beal, the founder of DeafTax LLC, has long observed the need in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community for financial services that offer communication in American Sign Language (ASL).

But now, some companies are beginning to address those needs. DeafTax is just one example of a growing number of efforts by businesses toward greater inclusion. And while much work remains to be done, some advocates have cited recent corporate initiatives as evidence of significant progress toward making everyday services accessible for people with disabilities, particularly customers and employees who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Starbucks recently announced the October opening of its first “signing store” in the United States where all employees will be fluent in ASL. Located near Gallaudet University, a university for people who are deaf or hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., the store was designed by a team of deaf Starbucks employees and partner organizations. (Starbucks already operates a deaf-friendly store in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.)

Starbucks will hire between 20 and 25 deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing employees. Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, sees this as important progress toward addressing what he views as a massive gap in job opportunities for those with disabilities.

“The Starbucks signing store … marks significant progress, and there are a few signs of progress with other large corporations taking initiatives to recruit people with disabilities to work for them,” says Mr. Rosenblum. “We are hopeful that this latest endeavor by Starbucks is a tipping point to more employment and inclusivity for deaf and hard-of-hearing people....”

Brandi Rarus, vice president of public relations, engagement, and policy for the nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), agrees that more can be done to create job opportunities and everyday services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“More than 70 percent of the deaf community is either unemployed or underemployed, [and] there is a large untapped economic base and talent pool of deaf people,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see increasing recognition of the benefits of these initiatives ... [and] we look forward to continuing progress.”

Just more than 37 million Americans reported some degree of hardness of hearing in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ranging from those who had “a little trouble hearing” to those who were deaf.

Ms. Rarus and her colleagues work on a regular basis with Beal and others through CSD’s multimillion-dollar social venture fund to support deaf-owned businesses. She mentions Mozzeria, a pizzeria and mobile pizza truck in San Francisco that is completely deaf-owned and operated. Mozzeria recently won a grant from CSD to franchise the company.

This summer, CSD also announced a collaboration with financial services group Wells Fargo to launch an online financial education series provided in ASL as part of the nonprofit’s CSD Learns program.

Joseph Santini, program manager for CSD Learns, reports an increase in deaf and hard-of-hearing initiatives among businesses and educational institutions.

“We are seeing more and more schools and companies interested in providing support at this level,” Mr. Santini says. “Nationally, companies are required to provide affirmative, diverse professional development training. Many companies don’t know where to begin....”

Santini hopes for more examples like Wells Fargo in years to come and sees technological advancement as key to facilitating greater inclusion and accessibility.

“I think progress for the deaf community is a cyclical thing,” he says. “Every generation sees new technologies emerge which change the game for accessibility and equity and those who choose to provide it.”

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