Blind World Magazine

Starbucks is reaching out to people with disabilities.

November 14, 2005.

If Starbucks has its way, its future work force will look more like Michelle Penman.

Thirty-six-year-old Ms. Penman, who has cerebral palsy, spends three hours getting ready for work every morning. Because she has trouble speaking and has limited mobility, customers must write down their orders and place them on her wheelchair. She returns with their coffee and food on a tray or in a backpack affixed to her motorized wheelchair.

The Seattle-based coffee giant has already turned Ms. Penman into something of a company icon. The Starbucks CEO mentions her in his speeches as an example of the devotion of the company's work force, and says he keeps her picture in his office.

Now StarbucksCorp. wants to make Ms. Penman a literal model employee. As the company expands its outlets, it is trying to tap into the growing pool of job seekers with disabilities. The goal: to make its stores more inviting to customers with disabilities, as well as their caretakers, family members and friends.

"This is a group that most businesses have not addressed," says May Snowden, Starbucks' vice president, global diversity. "As I look at changes in demographics, it is one of the groups that are very important."

Indeed, people with disabilities have discretionary spending power of $220 billion annually, according to the American Association of People With Disabilities. Of the 70 million families in the U.S., more than 20 million have at least one member with a disability, according to the association.

For Starbucks, the equation is simple. "Customers tend to patronize a business that is like them," says Jim Donald, president and chief executive officer.

A Wake-Up Call

The Starbucks effort, which is still in its early stages, is proceeding on a couple of fronts. The company recently hired Marthalee Galeota, who worked with Seattle-area nonprofits on disability matters, as senior diversity specialist in charge of disability issues. The job goes beyond making sure Starbucks complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the law that mandates equal access to jobs and services for the disabled. Ms. Galeota focuses on establishing a companywide etiquette for a range of issues.

For instance, she has changed the labels on tables designated for wheelchair users to read, "For a customer with a disability," instead of "Disabled customers."

The company also has designed its counters at a height that is easily reached by customers in wheelchairs, and the majority of its roughly 10,000 stores around the world have at least one handicapped-accessible entrance.

In addition, Ms. Galeota is working to incorporate disability etiquette into employee training. For example, employees should ask a customer with a disability if he or she would like help, rather than automatically lending a hand; they should also refrain from petting a working service dog for the blind. Then there are day-to-day matters. Ms. Galeota fields calls from employees with disabilities as well as store managers to give advice about potentially tricky situations -- for instance, what a manager should do if an employee goes deaf.

In terms of recruiting, the company has joined the National Business Disability Council, which provides a national database of résumés of people with disabilities. "We have to make sure we are sourcing at every source that is available," Ms. Snowden says. On average, the company hires 200 to 300 people overall every day.

Exactly how much progress Starbucks is making in hiring people with disabilities is difficult to measure. The company doesn't keep statistics on how many employees with disabilities it hires because employees are not required to record that information on an application.

Beyond the Coffee Line

The Starbucks effort comes as a number of other large employers are reaching out to disabled workers. International Business Machines Corp. offers internships for students with disabilities and runs sessions for managers to meet potential hires with disabilities. It also has put together a video for hiring managers that addresses questions they might be afraid to ask, such as how much it will cost to accommodate these employees and how they can ensure that these employees will be able to do their jobs properly.

"It's sending a message that we are a company that wants the best talent and we are inclusive of everyone," says Millie DesBiens, an IBM program manager who focuses on disability issues.

Verizon Corp., meanwhile, sends employees to conferences and conventions hosted by nonprofit groups working with the disability community. It also informs disability advocates about certain job openings, says Jeff Kramer, Verizon's director of public policy and strategic alliances.

But Starbucks faces a higher hurdle than most companies when it comes to recruiting people with disabilities. Its workers are constantly interacting with the public in its fast-paced, high-volume stores. Some Starbucks employees with disabilities acknowledge the challenges -- but also the rewards.

Since she started at Starbucks in 1998, Cindy Rogers, 50, has lost much of her vision. She uses special tactile pads on the cash register and takes her guide dog along to work. She can no longer do much work behind the fast-paced espresso bar, so she focuses on the pastry case and register.

Sometimes, she means to take a credit card and instead grabs the customer's hand. She once called out to say she could help the next person in line only to be told by a colleague that there was no line.

At times, "customers are not the nicest they could be," Ms. Rogers says. "Customers will say, 'Isn't that nice that Starbucks will let people like you work there.' " One man, commenting on her antiglare glasses, said, " 'Cool, I'll put on my sunglasses so we can communicate,' " she recalls.

But she says her co-workers at the Mesa, Ariz., outlet have been extremely supportive. "I am sure they get frustrated," she says. "I try to use humor, and if I didn't laugh I would cry."

And she says many customers are tactful and kind. She's gotten to know the regulars by the sound of their voices and knows exactly what they are going to order. On her days off, she runs a Braille reading group at the store for local children and their parents.

Corey Lindberg, a deaf 46-year-old senior business systems analyst working at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, says he's less prone to distraction around the office. If he needs to concentrate, he can just close his eyes. In some ways, he says, his hearing impairment -- which he developed later in life -- makes him work harder.

He relies on instant-messaging software and writing notes on paper to communicate, and the company supplies a sign-language interpreter when he attends meetings. When he speaks on the phone, he uses a device that captions the conversation on a computer screen or a videoconferencing service with an interpreter.

Before Michelle Penman joined Starbucks, she worked at a restaurant where the owner insisted that she sit out of sight of customers, according to her mother, Renee.

"He made her sit back behind the kitchen where she would not be in anyone's way," Renee Penman wrote in an email. "Sometimes she sat there for four hours without anyone even speaking to her. I talked with the owner several times about finding another place for her to sit while she waited for an order to come in, and he would not budge."

At Starbucks, the younger Ms. Penman sits in the front of the store, and "there are times when customers have to go around her to get in the coffee line," her mother says. But the manager has never suggested that Ms. Penman move out of the way, according to her mother. When Ms. Penman is out sick, customers ask where she is.

Mr. Donald, the CEO, attended her 10th anniversary party at the store. Michelle has been the subject of a local newspaper story and television news spot, her mother says.

"People talk about Starbucks in such a positive way, they say, 'That's where Michelle works,' " Renee Penman says. She says she knows her daughter is giving the company a wealth of positive press, but she doesn't mind. "If they want to be selfish and do it for them, that is OK. The person with the disability is winning, too."

--Mr. Corkery is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's New York bureau.

End of article.

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