Charlie Swinbourne: What the viral Starbucks ASL video really tells us about Deaf access

Posted on November 11, 2015

The video showing Rebecca King, a Deaf American woman, being able to complete her order in ASL at a Starbucks drivethrough has gone viral worldwide, being seen more than 6 million times.

Starbucks has since said that because the drivethrough, where people can pick up coffee and snacks, is near a school for deaf and blind children, it has worked to accommodate deaf customers there, and four baristas in total at that drivethrough know ASL.

I was a bit cynical about the clip at first, but then I learned that this wasn’t King’s first visit. After her first visit, her friends suggested she film the next time she went. And thus, a viral clip was born.

So what does this clip, and the way its gone viral, tell us?

Offering Deaf customers access can be a massive win-win for companies

Starbucks isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or rather, coffee) but this video has been a massive social media victory for the company.

Every one of the six million people who’ve seen it now surely thinks more positively about them, and it’s given them a tonne of free publicity.


Leaving the wider picture aside, this is great for customer relations. King clearly felt pretty good about her experience, and you’d imagine she’ll become a loyal customer for the company from then on, along with her Deaf friends.

So, by serving a Deaf customer in sign language, the company’s won a customer for life (or at least, as long as they keep serving her in ASL), and possibly many more Deaf and hearing customers because of this clip.

In way, it’s sad that this clip should be seen as being “amazing” and “awesome” (to quote some of the comments on Facebook).

I didn’t really want to spin a negative on this one (but I did anyway. Er, sorry).

Let me be clear: King being served in ASL is a massive positive. So is this video, because of the message it sends out, that Deaf access is a darn good thing.

But the fact that this clip has gone viral at all tells us something about people’s expectations, and I’m not just talking about Deaf people, but hearing people, too.

King clearly didn’t expect to be served in ASL. That amazed her and her friends, which is why she filmed it.

People who’ve viewed this video also find it surprising, which is why they’ve shared it and gone crazy about it.

In an ideal world, Deaf people would be served by Deaf-friendly servers more often (I’m not just talking about servers who can sign, but people who are Deaf-aware, who can speak clearly, and so on).

In an ideal world, Deaf people at a drivethrough, or accessing a company’s services in another way, would also have a good, seamless experience, every time. Or most times.

The fact is, we often don’t have that positive experience, which is why this video stands out, and why it’s ultimately gone viral.

So yes, the video’s positive, but it also says something negative too.

There’s no doubt that access is improving, with big companies signing up with firms such as SignVideoSign Solutions’ Interpreters Live, or AD Communications’ Red Dot services (please note: all companies are supporters of Limping Chicken, other providers are available!) to offer customers the chance to ‘phone’ them in BSL.

But most of the improvements to access seem to be coming online.

Face-to-face customer service, the kind you just drop in on, in the real world still has a long way to go for Deaf customers.

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning director and scriptwriter. He has written for the Guardian and BBC Online, and directed the comedies The Kiss and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool. His documentary Found, about people discovering the Deaf world, came out earlier this year. 

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