Workers learn how to make dining more friendly for the deaf

Melissa "echo" Greenlee explains how deaffriendly works with local businesses to make dining more accessible. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE--When you walk into a store or restaurant, it's normal to hear a worker welcome you in. Unless you're deaf. Customers who are deaf or hard of hearing can find eating out especially challenging.

Molly Moon's knows that, so its workers have skills that go beyond a strong ice scream scooping arm. Many Molly Moon's workers have some training in American Sign Language.

The most recent training came this week, from a business called deaffriendly.

"Our next exercise, we're going to learn the alphabet," one of the instructors told the group.

In addition to spelling out words, Melissa "echo" Greenlee and two other instructors taught words that would come in handy, like check, table and bathroom. And they showed the difference between wine and water, which are spoken through ASL with similar gestures.

Greenlee says there are 48 million people nationwide who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"It's an under-served market, and the businesses don't know how to be able to serve them properly. So it really makes great business sense to be able to be accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people," Greenlee said.

Greenlee also runs a Yelp-like review site where deaf customers rate stores and restaurants.

"When a business gets reviewed, deaffriendly actually reaches out to the business and checks in with them to see if they need any help, if they would like to work on improving their service so the next time a deaf person comes into their business, hopefully they will have improved the way they're serving this community," Greenlee said.

Molly Moon's employee Briana Hendricks said word spreads.

"They will frequent the places and they will go to the places that they feel comfortable in, and if your business is one of those places, then you're going to get a whole other influx of customers that you may have lost out on completely," Hendricks said.

The deaf-friendly dining training is especially in demand right now. A play - performed in American Sign Language - is about to open in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Molly Moon's, Rachel's Ginger Beer, and Cafe Flora are among those ready to cater to their deaf customers.

"When they know that you sign, they're so happy," said Molly Moon's employee Taylor Woodworth. "Because it takes a lot of that stress of asking for a piece of paper, not having a full communication. It just makes their experience better."

Workers don't need to have a full grasp of sign language, but a simple hello and "how many scoops?" can make the ice cream that much sweeter.

Greenlee says deaffriendly launched training last summer and has already worked with 100 employees in the Seattle area. She's also trained 200 workers in Phoenix and Portland, Oregon. This summer she'll be training in Miami, Baltimore and Salt Lake City.

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