Union Market offers deaf-friendly environment to shoppers, employees

Image: Valerie Campos, '10, takes an order from a deaf customer at Curbside Cupcakes at Union Market.

Valerie Campos, '10, takes an order from a deaf customer at Curbside Cupcakes at Union Market.

Image: At Neopol Savory Smokery, Emily Stemper, '14, answers a deaf customer's questions about the menu in ASL.

At Neopol Savory Smokery, Emily Stemper, '14, answers a deaf customer's questions about the menu in ASL.

Imagine a market where food vendors take your order in American Sign Language (ASL) and several of the employees are deaf. This utopia for deaf shoppers is a reality at Union Market in northeast Washington, D.C.

The market's deaf-friendly ambiance is directly correlated to its close proximity to the Gallaudet University campus, at the site of the former Union Terminal Market, which opened in 1931. The latest version of the market is an eclectic mix of upscale food vendors and boutiques-and one of the largest segments of its consumers is the Gallaudet community. This not only makes it in the proprietors' best interests to facilitate communication with deaf shoppers, it also offers Gallaudet students an opportunity for jobs.

David Uzzell, '12, for instance, works at Border Springs Farm, which serves 10 to 15 dishes with lamb as the main ingredient. "Thirty to 40 deaf people from Gallaudet come here every week to order food," said Uzzell, who communicates with non-signing customers and co-workers with the help of a cochlear implant. He also uses text messaging or writes notes to communicate, if needed. Uzzell has taught his co-workers basic ASL. "It's been an awesome experience working with Uzzell," said Chef BJ Lieberman, who does not know ASL but has learned from Uzzell how to interact with customers by using gestures and common ASL signs. "It's definitely a different experience," he said.

"It's been an interesting learning experience," said Uzzell. "I would recommend Gallaudet students work here because they will get real world experience and they will develop social skills and experience in the long run. Hey, they can also learn something about themselves."

At Curbside Cupcakes, Valeria Campos, '10, works as a kiosk manager. "Customers use gestures and pointing to order cupcakes, which are visible at the counter," Campos said. "Gallaudet students should work here to expand the deaf community's presence at Union Market. They will have challenges because it is a different world here." She added, "Two worlds, deaf and hearing, can become one."

At Neopol Savory Smokery, where smoked salmon, seafood, and hummus is sold, Emily Stemper, '14, works more than 30 hours a week as a counter person, cashier, order taker, and dish washer. She is bilingual--fluent in ASL and English and hears with a cochlear implant. "Many ASL interpreters come here, which is great because they help me if I can't understand a hearing person," said Stemper, explaining that she has trouble discerning speech in a loud environment, like when coffee is being ground. If no interpreters are present, she asks her co-workers for help.

Union Market also has vendors who sell items related to the culinary industry, like D.C. Mobile Sharpening!, a business owned by brothers Ryan and Derek Swanson of Boston, Mass., that sells knives and offers knife sharpening services. Alumni Noel King, '12, and Griffin O'Hara, '13, are employed as knife sharpeners. Ryan, who grew up with a deaf best friend, said he uses body language to explain how to sharpen the knives instead of offering a verbal explanation.

"Working here has been a wonderful experience, because this place is very deaf-friendly," said King. She also praised the market's designers for implementing elements of Deaf Space, an architectural concept that emphasizes the use of light and open space to facilitate visual communication. "It's so easy to communicate with other employees by seeing them beyond my booth, and it is well-lit here," King said. O'Hara added, "Gallaudet students should work here, because this is so close to campus."

--By Megan Clancy

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