Walk into the Starbucks outlet in Bangsar Village II in Kuala Lumpur and the familiar accoutrements of forest green aprons and all-enveloping coffee aroma will be there. But the customary cheery greetings from the baristas will be delivered in sign language, and the only sounds from behind the counter are the hissing of the machines and the splashing of the tap.
As of July 20, that particular Starbucks outlet is officially dedicated to raising awareness about employing the deaf, and celebrating the contributions of all differently-abled employees.
“We are proud to support people with disabilities through work fulfillment, to create a culture of empowerment and to bring new perspectives to the workplace… which ultimately makes us a better company,” said Sydney Quays, managing director of Starbucks Malaysia and Brunei, in a press release.
The idea for the initiative was seeded a year ago, when then-barista Muhammad Aizad Ariffin (Aizad to friends, customers and customers-turned-friends) expressed a wish – to be the first deaf shift supervisor at Starbucks – in the company’s employer branding video.
His drive and message inspired his colleagues, and sparked the move that should put Starbucks Malaysia on the inclusive employment opportunities map worldwide.
According to Yvonne Kua, Starbucks Malaysia’s assistant manager for public affairs and communications, Starbucks Malaysia already had three deaf partners (as it refers to its employees) working as baristas, one each in the MidValley Megamall, Pavilion KL and Berjaya Times Square outlets in the Klang Valley.
But now, the Bangsar Village II store has had its ordering and collection system adapted, to better work with and for the 10 deaf partners who work there.
Customers place their orders by marking a menu card, which they pass to the baristas; in turn, the baristas can communicate with non-signing customers via hand-written notes or with easily-understood signs – it’s amazing how clear it is that a repeated circular motion above your cup and quizzically-raised eyebrows means “Do you want whipped cream with that?”
The total amount to be paid is displayed on a screen facing the customer, and beverage pick-up can be done as usual, further along the counter. And because you write your name on the order card, this was one of the few times I was “Suzanne” at a Starbucks, instead of the usual “Susan” or once, “Zan”.
According to Kua, the system has been tested for a while now, with mostly positive feedback from customers.
Starbucks partnered with The Society of Interpreters for the Deaf (SID) to facilitate the hiring, training and coaching of their deaf partners, and to teach sign language to hearing employees at the store.
What’s not new is Starbucks Malaysia’s policy of hiring from under-represented groups. This includes the Starbucks VIP Programme, launched last year, that hires those aged 55 and above – with special flexible hours, among other benefits.
Meanwhile, Aizad has realised his wish. He is now the shift supervisor at the Bangsar Village II store. His next goal? To become Starbucks Malaysia’s first deaf Coffee Master.