How a GR firm played a role in first fully accessible Starbucks store

Starbucks recently opened a first-of-its-kind coffee shop in Washington near Union Market that's designed with accessibility in mind, particularly for those with disabilities.

The new D.C. store is serving as a model for all new and renovated Starbucks company-operated locations in the U.S. Progressive Companies, a national design firm with headquarters in Grand Rapids, helped develop the Inclusive Spaces Framework that was used to create the inclusive design guidelines for the store.

A leader in accessible design, Progressive, has also worked with many local clients, including the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, Mary Free Bed YMCA, and the Critter Barn in Zeeland.

Startbuck’s Inclusive Spaces Framework includes features and amenities that make the shop more accessible for those who are hearing or visually impaired, or need mobile assistance. This includes the following: 
  • A custom "order status board" displays where items are in the queue, giving visual cues when orders are ready.
  • Mobile point-of-sale systems are adjustable for better visibility, offer voice assist and screen magnification, and show images "to support language diversity."
  • Acoustic features reduce noise that can interfere with assistive devices like hearing aids, while lighting minimizes glare, shadow patterns, and backlighting that can impede visual communication.
  • Lower counters with overhangs better accommodate wheelchair access as well as people with service dogs or strollers.
  • Power-operated doors are equipped with vertical push buttons that are easier to activate from various heights and angles.
Progressive’s Michael Perry, a nationally recognized expert in universal design, was part of the project. He worked with Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D., disability inclusion expert, and Andrew Houghton, nationally recognized accessibility expert. 

Perry says the three experts have an informal partnership and have been working together for about eight years. Together they bring a wealth of lived experiences and professional design, including Progressive's proprietary standards for universal design best practices. 

Benefits of universal design

Perry started working in universal design in 2013 for a project with the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids. Since then, he has done universal design work with clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits. 

“Part of universal design work is educating people and helping them understand that it doesn't have to cost more,” says Perry. “Seven years ago when I would be talking about universal design, customers would say," Well, how much is that going to cost me?’”
Michael Perry
Often, a more inclusive design is safer, which saves money in the long run. For example, 80% of accidents in buildings happen on stairs.

Universal design also plays an important role in making a space feel welcoming.

“Most of the companies we work with believe that if they implement universal design and they create more inclusive spaces, it's going to help with talent attraction and employee retention,” Perry says. “They all have mission statements about it. But our sweet spot is space, and we say, ‘OK, you want to be inclusive to all, but how is that translating to your buildings?’ We're not developing hiring practices or employment practices around being inclusive. It's really about how space supports people with diverse abilities, allowing everyone to have choices. 

“The fact is, 20% of the people we work with have some kind of a disability. It might be cognitive, it may be physical. So if you can create an environment that tries to help everybody, you're moving in the right direction.” 

As an example of the benefits of universal design, Perry pointed to a popular architectural element that can be difficult for those who are visually impaired: glass walls and doors. 

“I love transparency,” Perry says, “but at the same time, if your conference room is surrounded by glass, you just need to put some graphics on the glass to aid as visual warning, because some people will accidently walk into glass walls. It’s a universal way to help people who may have a visual impairment, as well as those who may not be familiar with glass environments.” 

Addressing neurodiversity

A rising issue in design is addressing neurodiversity, says Perry, who recently wrote a piece about it on his LinkedIn profile.  

“There's no neuro-normal. We're all neurodiverse in some way,” he says. 

The two major issues in addressing neurodiversity are distracting acoustics and harsh overhead lighting.

“So if you can control the acoustics and the lighting of a space, that helps people who may be considered neurodiverse,” Perry says. 

Acoustic changes that could be helpful include providing quiet zones or letting people wear headphones, allowing people a break from bright, noisy spaces.

Furniture, such as wobble chairs and rockers, can also play a role by giving people a way to fidget to calm down and release their anxiety.

The manager at the new accessible Starbucks store uses sign language to communicate with a customer.

For the Starbucks project, Perry says the inclusive design team came up with many ideas, including colored lights for those who have hearing issues, and the use of multiple modes of communication. 

“It's a lot about allowing individuals to maintain their independence and respecting them as part of the human experience, because none of us are perfect,” Perry says. 

Here are some other examples of the new features in the groundbreaking Starbucks store:

A new point of sale system. The version being tested is designed to aid worker and customer interactions, with voice recognition that captures what the customer is saying, screen magnification, images of menu items to support language diversity, and visual confirmation of orders. 

Power-operated doors. At the front entrance, any customer can push the power buttons to open doors independently and with ease from both the inside and outside. The longer vertical buttons are easier to activate from different heights and angles.

More accessible pickup counter. This features an overhanging shelf and almost three feet of clearance underneath, providing lots of room for customers to approach with wheelchairs, power chairs, strollers and service dogs.  

Optimized acoustics and lighting. Adjustable lighting – including multiple dimmers and power screens on the exterior windows – reduces daytime glare and shadows that might interfere with visual communication. Acoustic dampening baffles in the ceiling reduce noise and reverberations, including for people who use assisted listening devices, such as hearing aids.

Aira for low-vision or blind customers. With the Aira app, customers who are blind or have low vision are connected via their smartphone camera to on-demand visual interpreters who help guide them through the store.

Inclusive equipment design. Starbucks new coffee brewer, the Clover Vertica, has accessibility features like a larger dial, visual and haptic confirmation, and a light to notify workers when brewing is complete.

Customer order status boards. A large status board at the end of the bar gives visual information to customers. Names are alphabetized into three columns: received, in progress, and ready. The technology was born out of the first few Starbucks Signing Stores, including one just a few blocks away. The original board was just a computer monitor.

Mural designed by deaf artist. The nearly 8-foot-tall wrap-around mural was designed by Ryan Seslow, a deaf New York City-based artist and college professor who has hereditary hearing loss. His piece is designed to help spark community conversation around disability, accessibility and inclusion. A replica is etched into the store’s community table, offering a more tactile way to engage with the design.

Community commitment to inclusion. Half of this store’s partners know and use American Sign Language. Some are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s a commitment aligned with the ethos of the neighborhood; the store is just blocks away from Gallaudet University, the nation’s premier university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In fact, the store manager is one of several deaf store leaders at Starbucks and a graduate of Gallaudet.

Other design considerations include edges on furniture and walls that are rounded to soften harsh corners and improve flow. Textural gradients, open sightlines and counter height create a sense of direction and approachability. In the bathroom, to limit reaching, a 3-in-1 device dispenses water and soap and dries hands.

Companywide commitment

In announcing the innovative store, Starbuck said the company is working to better meet the needs of its workers, customers and communities through its Inclusive Spaces Framework, which is already part of its plans for rapid store growth in the U.S. 

The Inclusive Spaces Framework aims to bring more inclusive innovation into physical and digital spaces while enabling Starbucks to scale the accessibility across its store portfolio.  

The nearly 8-foot-tall wrap-around mural was designed by Ryan Seslow, a deaf New York City-based artist.

The company says it has a long history of working to create a culture of warmth and belonging in its stores, making them places where everyone is welcome. This includes its stores’ display of artwork that celebrates community, 23 Signing Stores across the globe, access to free Aira services that help blind or low-vision customers navigate cafes, and its Disability Advocacy Partner Network, an employee resource group in place since 2016. 

“At Starbucks, we have challenged ourselves to imagine what’s possible when we take a closer look at the many ways our partners and customers interact with us and experience our stores every day,” said Katie Young, senior vice president of store operations. “Building and scaling an Inclusive Store Framework is central to our mission of connection and will lead to greater access for all.” 

Photos courtesy of Starbucks.

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

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