He ain’t heavy, he’s my partner

KUALA LUMPUR, 29 Aug 2017:

The Starbucks barista got the order of two tall frappuccinos – one mocha praline and chocolate cream chip (minus the whipped cream for both), a sugar donut, chicken and mushroom pie (heated up, thank you, very much), and two cups of warm water, all to have in; spot on.

So what’s the big deal, you might ask?

Well, this was not at just any ordinary Starbucks; this was at the first-in-the-world Starbucks signing store in Bangsar Village II (BVII) – where service is handled by deaf staff (who prefer to be known as partners).

The store looks like any other Starbucks café here – or anywhere else in the world, for that matter – except this one bears a slightly more remarkable story: it is run almost entirely by deaf staff.

Starbucks senior manager for Malaysia and Brunei, Salleharon, says there is only one hearing partner (Starbucks calls all their employees ‘partners’ in an attempt to foster a closely-knit family environment) at the store – the 13 deaf baristas otherwise comfortably run the show there.

The store even boasts of its first deaf shift manager and coffee master (again, the only one in the world) in 29-year old Muhammad Aizad Ariffin. As one of the pioneer deaf partners, he even helps out with the interview process; and the training of new deaf staff.

Indeed, Starbucks Malaysia can pride itself on its inclusive, outreach programmes that connect with the marginalised in society.

It isn’t just the deaf community that has found a place with the coffee giant. Currently even the elderly, the retired and housewives (through their VIP programme) are counted amongst their valued partners; and, in time, perhaps even slow learners may find themselves part of the famous coffee family.

Already, Salleharon says they have some high functioning autistic partners – whom they have placed in strategic outlets where they can contribute effectively.

There is a lot of planning that goes into an amazing project such as this. Aside from investment and training for the disabled, it involves massive cross department (security, human resources and frontline) cooperation.

The signing store in BVII, for example, was a project that took five years to fruition.

One year on, it is highly profitable and has become something of a tourist attraction; with curious foreign visitors making it a point to stop by just to be served by one of their warm deaf partners, or to purchase exclusive signing merchandise unique only to the BVII store.

Seeing the confidence Aizad displays today is a far cry from the shy, confidence challenged youth who first started working five years ago, Salleharon says.

He is a pro at handling media interviews, and just observing him conducting a coffee tasting session was proof of that.

One can only look forward to more and better things to come for a wider scope of people with mild disabilities being given fair opportunities.

Or being recognised for the contributions they, too, can make to society. Or for more such companies to get on the inclusive bandwagon.

Proud coffee masters .. Muhammad Aizad Ariffin (left) & Mohd Akmal Abd Khalid

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