In early March of this year, a group of deaf people were holding their monthly meeting at a Starbucks in lower Manhattan. Part of a national effort called Deaf Chat Coffee, they were gathered together to socialize over coffee and pastries purchased at the coffee outlet. Suddenly, their meeting was interrupted by police officers who had been summoned to the store by Starbucks workers. The workers claimed that the group was creating a disturbance, conducting a meeting without a permit, and were not purchasing items from the store. None of these allegations were true and the police officers apologized to the group, finding no illegal conduct. In addition to harassing the group by calling the police, one Starbucks employee allegedly laughed hysterically at the speech of one member of the group and other deaf customers claimed that they were refused service. In one case, a Starbucks employee who knew some sign language tried to assist the deaf customers and was reprimanded by another employee.
When a complaint was filed with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and other upper management staff, an executive apologized and tried to assuage the group by offering them a preloaded Starbucks gift card. That wasn’t enough for these customers and they promptly filed a lawsuit, now pending in Federal Court. (To their credit, Starbucks subsequently published a post on their website decrying discrimination in any form and outlining the ways in which they intentionally support Deaf partners and customers.) http://www.starbucks.com/blog/starbucks-on-inclusion-of-deaf-community/1262
For those Unitarian Universalists who don’t think that matters related to inclusion of people with disabilities is a social justice issue, think again. If this action had been perpetrated against a group of LGBT persons or persons of color, the uproar would have been deafening (no pun intended). But because it happens to a group of people whose rights are not nearly trumpeted as much as those of other marginalized groups, it gets a 10 second spot on the local news right before sports and weather.
There are a group of UU congregations who are planning a joint worship event in the fall. The idea was raised to hire a sign language interpreter for attendees who are deaf. I was told that there was resistance to the idea since some members of the planning committee felt that it wasn’t necessary. Thanks to the persistence of one member of the committee, the idea was adopted and the interpreter was hired.
We have a long way to go in recognizing and acknowledging the rights of people with disabilities, both in the outside world and within our Unitarian Universalist communities. Let’s start talking about it in our congregations. I’ll be happy to discuss it with you anytime, perhaps over a cup of coffee?
Mark Bernstein, CERG Consultant and UUA Liaison to Equual Access