If you have not heard – or seen, in my case – the news, Starbucks has opened a “sign language” store near Gallaudet University, the only 4-year liberal arts university for deaf people in the world. Splashed on the entrance of the H Street NE storefront is S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S spelled out in the hand shapes of American Sign Language (ASL) where 24 employees have been hired to make coffee, take orders, and run the shop using ASL.
Corporate bigwigs at Starbucks may be patting themselves on the back for their hip, virtuous decision to open a signing store. And some Deaf people are celebrating the historical occasion for well-intentioned reasons.
But as some wise dude once said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
As a Deaf person, I see worrisome signs of fetishization and victimization that are not only problematic, if I may use this fashionable word, but also self-defeating if we consider the long-term interests of the Deaf community.
(To be clear, am I offended & outraged? No. Am I dazed & confused? Yes. Do I want boycotts & apologies? No. Do I want conversation & clarity? Yes.)
One bothersome concern is the appropriation of ASL and Deaf culture. Inside the Starbucks signing store is a loud sign boasting that the store is “dedicated to people united by sign language and Deaf culture.”
To put the fetishization in context, try to imagine white people opening an “African-American store” next to Howard University. Or English-speaking business owners writing on their store wall in Dearborn, Michigan that the store is dedicated to Arabic. Or evangelical Christians in Mississippi opening a Jewish coffee store several blocks from the only synagogue in the state.
What is rather easier to imagine, however, is a hearing family from Carson City visiting the Asian Elephants and Sumatran Tigers at the National Zoo, the paintings of the Obamas at the National Portrait Gallery — and then the signing baristas on H Street.
Look, Mommy! Here is how you fingerspell V-E-N-T-I!
How different is the signing store, I wonder, from the human zoos of the 19th and 20th centuries where the privileged few would hold public exhibitions of ‘exotic’ humans from a ‘different world’ under the guise of multicultural education? (Other than how the store on H Street pays a living wage and has loud signs on its walls saying the right kind of things.)
Now, if that hearing family wants to learn sign language after visiting the Sumatran Tigers, then cool pies. How about visiting Gallaudet University? Downloading the deaf-owned ASL App? Buying a pint at that deaf-run brewery, Streetcar 82, a stone’s throw away in Hyattsville?
But hey, at the end of the day, hearing people can hijack and gawk all they want, like it or not, because, yes, ASL is pretty cool. And it is still a free country.
What is quite confusing, however, is when Deaf people wipe away tears of joy while discussing the signing store. For ‘finally’ being able to order coffee in ASL. For ‘finally’ not being shut out of conversations and stuck in hearing spaces. That is, if we pay attention to fulsome compliments on social media and in the news media, the signing store is commended for removing barriers for Deaf people.
Yet, when we cannot order coffee at a signing store and portray it as a “barrier”, at the most basic level, we are exaggerating the severity of the offense. How time-consuming or upsetting is it, really, to write out “Grande Vanilla Latte with soy milk” on pen and paper, point it out on the menu, or type it out on our iPhone while waiting in line? Are we not diminishing the rhetorical power of “victim” for those far more deserving?
More fundamentally, this narrative of victimization is unproductive at best and detrimental at worst if we consider the crossroads at which the Deaf community is currently, and the ongoing debate between Deaf activists and proponents of hearing and spoken language (HSL).
According to reports, the American Deaf Community stands at a critical juncture today. The advent of cochlear implants and its exploding popularity, the improvements in medical care and early hearing loss detection, and the rise of mainstreaming deaf students and the decrease in enrollment at schools for the deaf suggest that the survival of ASL & Deaf culture is at stake.
If there is to be enough Deaf Americans in the year of 2050 to sustain the vibrance of American Sign Language and deaf communities, and to be able to justify schools, programs, and services for the deaf, then our unique task is that of persuasion because a community sparsely populated will not stand.
More specifically, we have to persuade strangers that Deaf people are not victims, in order to get more of what we claim we want. This is because being Deaf in the United States is no longer a medical condition. Nor is exposing deaf students to Deaf identity, culture, and education a sovereign decision made by and for Deaf people.
Instead, because of technological and legal advances such as the cochlear implant and the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is a personal choice made by, for all intents and purposes, ‘others’ if we consider that more than 90% of deaf children are from hearing parents.
That people who are different from us get to choose whether or not our next generation have a different identity and culture from us is an exceptional dilemma known to almost no other minority community.
As a low-incidence, low-power group whose future is supposedly in jeopardy, we ought to, therefore, consider the trade-offs of victimhood rhetoric that are shaping our public culture today.
To that end, we sometimes celebrate awareness at the expense of persuasion. Project D.A.R.E. was not effective, for instance, in preventing drug use in youth, despite being successful in spreading awareness about its dangers.
Similarly, what is the message we are sending with our praise of the signing Starbucks store? Of what exactly are we making our audience aware? If you ask me, we are telling hearing parents of deaf children that our existence as deaf people who sign is isolating and frustrating. And by doing that, we are nudging them toward the very preferences, perceptions, and practices that are supposedly threatening the future of the Deaf community, and those which many of us are actively trying to discourage.
By spreading the impression that ordering caffeinated drinks via pen and paper is a tiresome, lonely experience for Deaf people, it becomes difficult to rebut Helen Keller’s famous observation that deafness is a much worse fortune than blindness because it prevents us from participating in the world out there.
It also becomes harder to counter the contentious position of the Alexander Graham Bell Organization that listening and speaking is the solution for deaf children. Quite ironically, we tend to consider AG Bell Enemy #1 because of their support of cochlear implants and “oral education.” We often accuse the organization of xenophobia, phonocentrism, and audism, and denounce their long-standing practice of “eugenics.” Quite rightfully, we contend that deafness is not necessarily an affliction; that sign language is beneficial; and that parents ought not despair if their deaf children do not listen and speak.
Yet, in the next breath, we act afflicted, despairing about commonplace experiences for deaf people who cannot listen and speak in public spaces.
This tactic is worrisome because the hearing parent with a deaf baby reading about the signing store might, quite reasonably, wonder: if an everyday task as mundane as ordering coffee is this traumatizing for Deaf people, then what must it be like for us everyday outside the “DEAF WORLD“? Without signing employees and loud signs announcing fealty to Deaf culture in stores?
The irony is not only that most Deaf people I know are perfectly OK with ordering coffee, which is a straightforward process pretty much anywhere in the country, but also that it has never been a better time to be a Deaf American.
More big-screen movies are captioned than ever. ASL interpreters in most public spaces are not unusual luxuries but lawful mandates. Deaf people are opening businesses at an unprecedented rate. Nyle DiMarco is winning the hearts and minds of tweeters, tweeners, and influential people. In the past several years alone, Broadway has reimagined a play by putting deaf actors and hearing actors on the same stage and revived another that challenges common misconceptions about deaf people. The VL2 lab is discovering cognitive benefits of ASL. And so it goes.
Yet, people looking in would have not guessed if they had merely read the quotes, tweets, and posts about the signing store.
The time is right for activists and leaders to re-think, re-discuss, and re-frame how we talk about ‘the Deaf experience’ & what we typically celebrate as ‘progress’ in the Deaf community. To that end, we should consider some questions about the Starbucks signing store, no matter its good intentions, including but not limited to:
To what extent is the store giving the misguided impression that ASL and Deaf culture are mere commodities that can be exported and exploited by others?
Are deaf people doomed to uncomfortable existences in the wilderness unless a signing Chipotle, a signing Sweet Green, a signing ride-sharing service, etc. are, too, adopted?
For the sake of persuading strangers, if nothing else, I submit that Deaf people ought to celebrate less often places like the signing Starbucks store, and more often deaf baristas and managers at our local Starbucks.
That we should advocate less often for Deaf-centric places, and more often for accessible public spaces.
That we should resist the trendy impulse to play the victim by sensationalizing less about barriers that are not quite, and by seeking honesty, self-reliance, and dignity instead.
Until then, if you want Starbucks coffee and are passing by on H Street, so be it. By all means, stop by and order a venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato in sign language or on their two-way keyboards.
At the end of the day, however, I appreciate good coffee around the corner, which is why I’ll order my espresso from Peregrine Espresso across the street from Gallaudet and their award-winning baristas.
Even if I have to take 5 seconds to write down “a quadruple shot of espresso, please.”