How do you do business without making a sound? Along the popular H Street corridor, two local branches of huge international corporations have been joined by a scrappy Napolitana pizzeria to cater to a locally prominent demographic — the deaf and hard of hearing.
Starbucks, Chase Bank and a deliciously aromatic pizza joint called Mozzeria have all opened locations run entirely by the deaf. Each business uses visual aids, body language and American sign language to make eating, drinking and doing business an inviting experience for hearing and non-hearing individuals alike.
The initiative is a response to the highly concentrated deaf population living near Gallaudet University, the first institution of higher education exclusively for the deaf and hard of hearing. The college has attracted students as well as their families to the area, and these three businesses have radically adjusted their operations to suit their customers’ needs.
Each store is equipped with useful tools like tablets for communication between hearing customers and non-hearing staff. The color scheme in Chase Bank consists of muted blues to reduce eye strain and provide universal contrast against people who are signing. Mozzeria has a large, open-concept floor plan that allows for nonverbal communication between any two people in the restaurant, no matter how far apart they are.
“It’s not often that outside of Italy you see a restaurant operating using gestures,” jokes Mozzeria owner Ryan Maliszewski, who has also served as an executive strategy and technology advisor for the FBI and director of Gallaudet University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute.
All three businesses incorporate aspects of what architects call “deaf space” into the designs of their stores. Deaf space often includes open, circular design, low-glare reflective surfaces and a lot of good natural lighting that reduces eye strain.
This is Starbucks’s second of six deaf-operated locations. The first store debuted in Malaysia, where it proved to be a great success. “Increasing visual communication with store operations not only provides access, but increases efficiency,” explains Sevana Massih, program manager of accessibility at Starbucks. “This was a key learning from our first signing store in Malaysia that we applied in the U.S. and has helped us better understand design modifications and gain knowledge to create the best possible store experience for deaf and hard of hearing customers.”
Breakthroughs in design, science, and business, often come about when someone with a different way of seeing the world is confronted with a problem that others haven’t been able to solve. “Without diversity of people, of thought, and of action, there is no innovation,” says Maliszewski.