August 30, 2019 by Paul Hyde
When two Clemson faculty members decided to host a coffee get-together for the local Deaf community in Greenville, little did they know that 300 people would show up.
Starbucks wasn’t prepared either. “They only scheduled one signing barista, and he was swamped,” said Jason Hurdich, a lecturer in the Clemson Department of Languages.
Signing Starbucks-Greenville has become a lively monthly gathering since the first event in January. “People have come from all over South Carolina, plus North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida,” said William “Bo” Clements, also a lecturer in the Department of Languages. “I’m sure there are more than just these states.”
Hurdich and Clements are two of four Deaf faculty members in the American Sign Language program at Clemson.
Clemson is the only four-year public institution in South Carolina that recognizes and offers ASL as world language credit. Students can earn a bachelor’s degree in ASL or minor in the program, which is part of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.
Public coffee chats for the Deaf community are held throughout the nation, but Hurdich and Clements believe the monthly Greenville gathering has immediately catapulted to the largest in the country. “Most Deaf coffee chats across the nation attract between 20-70 people, and we were surprised but glad to see so many members of the community,” Hurdich said by email.
Hurdich and Clements knew the Upstate had a sizable Deaf community, but social opportunities, particularly for those in small towns, are limited. “There are very few opportunities for us to meet,” Hurdich said. “The Deaf community tends to be isolated from mainstreamed settings.”
The two looked around for an appropriate location and found a relatively new Starbucks on Laurens Road. “It was a perfect place with bright light and plenty of tables and chairs,” Clements said.
Starbucks has a particularly strong commitment to the Deaf community, having opened a “Signing Store” last fall in Washington, D.C., where every employee is proficient in ASL, Hurdich said. The Laurens Road Starbucks, meanwhile, regularly schedules up to four signing baristas on Signing Starbucks nights.
Attendance at the monthly meeting has declined somewhat due to the summer holidays, but Hurdich said he expected the numbers to climb back up to 300 in the fall.
At Signing Starbucks get-togethers, ASL chats are not so different from conversations by the hearing community, with topics touching on “work, family, sports, churches and universities,” Clements said.
But members of the Deaf community also share information to help each other navigate the challenges they face, said Hurdich, who earned the nickname “Rockstar” as a prominent ASL interpreter for Gov. Nikki Haley during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“We thrive on sharing information since we miss out on incidental information,” he said. “Think of all the talking that happens throughout the day, and imagine how that information is missing for a Deaf person.
“With the isolation of the Deaf community, having the opportunity together to share topics is important,” Hurdich added. “Most commonly we discuss community happenings, quality of interpreting services, even technology that impacts the Deaf community.”
Often in attendance also are the hearing children of Deaf parents. “It is their opportunity to connect with other children in similar circumstances,” Hurdich said. “[It’s] a great way to share, so it’s wonderful to see that!”