I am a deaf barista and my dream is to be a coffee connoisseur

By Hoe I Yune, Feb 20, 2020

Job hunting can be a frustrating experience, even more so if you are deaf. The need for “verbal communication” skills is written in almost every job description, and to even get past the initial hiring process is tricky if you are not able to answer the phone when employers call to reach out for an interview.

However, all that has not deterred Liza, who was born deaf, from taking on jobs and striving to make the most out of life. A coffee enthusiast, the 32-year-old Starbucks barista wants to grow in her career because to her, being unable to hear does not mean she is not able to be independent and contribute to society. 

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In the past, it was hard to score a job because many employers are put off hiring me once they find out that I am deaf. The first job I landed was working for a factory, where I worked in quality control to ensure that there were no product defects. Then I worked at a hypermarket, but quit after two years as it got too strenuous. It was extremely labour-intensive because I had to carry heavy boxes and work 10 hours a day. My salary was low at RM700 (SGD233.25) a month, including overtime pay. 

But the third time’s the charm. It has been three years and six months since I first joined Starbucks and I enjoy it here. I love being able to interact with customers, exchanging greetings, and sharing what I have learned about coffee. 

The branch I work at in Kuala Lumpur is the world’s first Starbucks signing store, which was designed to hire deaf employees. Starbucks now has four signing stores, with the rest located in Penang, Washington, and Guangzhou. Customers order by marking a menu card instead of speaking and we use handwritten notes to communicate with them. Once the drinks and food are ready for collection, the order number appears on a screen, so there’s no need to call out names. There’s also a writing pad and menu chit by the counter in case we want to communicate through writing. 

Everybody else at this coffeehouse is either deaf or familiar with sign language, so it is very much an inclusive space where I am the norm and not the exception. 

Coming in, the hearing customers know what to expect and many are keen to learn sign language so that they can communicate with us. At the very least, they would use it to say “hi” or “good morning”. These are little things, but it really is nice not to have to go through an interpreter all the time. 

It can still be challenging when there’s a breakdown in communication, such as if I make a drink, then notice an unhappy expression appear on a customer’s face when he takes his or her first sip. But if things escalate, I call the hearing manager (there is one in each signing store). That can make me feel a bit helpless at times, although with experience comes empathy.

In deaf culture, facial expressions are an important part of communication so I instinctively pay closer attention to facial expressions. 

In Starbucks, we are also trained and encouraged to ask for help whenever we come across a challenge so that our manager or other deaf partners can step in. It is very much about working together as a team and there is no shame in asking for help. 

This has been my first customer-facing role and I am very proud of it because it’s like I’m being given the chance to be in the public eye and prove that the deaf can work. 

I had been unemployed for two months when I walked past a Starbucks coffeehouse. I have always been interested in coffee so I walked in to see if they were interested in hiring anyone. I figured it was worth a shot as I knew of a deaf barista who worked in Mid Valley, even before the signing store opened. I thought my chance of gaining employment was promising as Starbucks hires people from the deaf community.

When the staff noticed that I am deaf, they suggested that I head to the outlet in Bangsar Village II for an interview. That is the signing store which I work at now. 

In 2018, I was certified as a Starbucks Coffee Master, which means I now get to don a black apron and am more well-versed in the coffeehouse beverages.

In 2018, I was certified as a Starbucks Coffee Master, which means I now get to don a black apron and am more well-versed in the coffeehouse beverages.

Working here, I have cultivated an interest in coffee, learning how the beans are grown and sourced to be made into drinks. 

It can get busy during the festive period, but it is a lot less physically strenuous than my previous roles. In my first job at the factory, there were times when I worked up to 12 hours a day and there was no opportunity to sit down at all.

Career success to me is pretty straightforward — it’s to be able to land a job that pays me on time and eases my financial burden. What’s tricky is the prevailing perception that the deaf can’t work. 

Knowing that there are limited desk jobs available for the deaf due to our lack of verbal communication skills, my parents wanted me to develop other skills such as cooking, so that I would be able to support myself as an adult. That is why unlike the rest of my siblings, I completed my secondary education at a vocational school close to home, graduating with an SPM qualification (the GCE O-Level equivalent in Malaysia). 

I was in primary school when I realised how different I was from anyone else because I attended separate classes from the hearing students who formed the majority in school.

The other deaf and hard of hearing students and I were taught under the guidance of a teacher fluent in sign language. It could get pretty lonely but at least there were others like me who knew how to sign. 

Coming in second place in class, I received an award for my academic results back in 1993.

Coming in second place in class, I received an award for my academic results back in 1993.

I was born deaf in my right ear. Although I can hear a little on my left side with a hearing aid, it is extremely faint and not enough for me to communicate in anything but sign language. 

My mother and I were in Cameron Highlands where we lived for a part of my childhood.

My mother and I were in Cameron Highlands where we lived for a part of my childhood.

I am the fourth child among six siblings and everyone else, including my parents, are able to hear. My whole family learned to sign so that they could communicate with me, but only my younger sister Ain is fluent in sign language. 

We were the closest to each other growing up because there was hardly an age gap between us and we often played together. In a way, how she chose to learn beyond basic sign language also strengthened our bond and I was able to confide in her more. Our social lives were intertwined and we would talk about our hopes and dreams.

My siblings and I on my youngest brother’s fourth birthday.

My siblings and I on my youngest brother’s fourth birthday.

I longed to be able to hear like everyone else and only when I was 19 did I embrace my deaf identity. That was the year I developed a stronger faith in Islam and my religious teacher helped me see what I had initially thought of as obstacles as blessings. Through his teachings I learned to accept my fate and it steered me to develop a more positive mentality around my inability to hear. I concentrate on the good things like not being distracted by noise when trying to focus, and I can confidently say that I am now at peace with my condition. 

A high school reunion with my ex-classmates.

A high school reunion with my ex-classmates.

Although I wish the rest of my family could improve their sign language skills so that we can communicate at a greater ease, I have never once felt excluded because it has always been clear to me that my parents love us all equally. 

My family and I during our 2018 Hari Raya celebration.

My family and I during our 2018 Hari Raya celebration.

Luckily technology has also made it easier these days because I can text via WhatsApp or make video calls. 

Even when I go into town on weekends, it is a lot easier now that the use of technology is so proliferate. I used to worry about getting conned because there were occasions in the past when dishonest shop owners gave me shoddy or spoiled products, then ignored me when I asked for refunds. Unable to speak, I was not able to fight back. 

When I go shopping in town, I am usually accompanied by a hearing friend who can sign and interpret for me, but it would be nice to be able to wander around town independently. If only there are more interpreters around and more people know how to sign.

Having said that, I do recognise that society as a whole is striving to be more inclusive now. I enjoy watching movies and it really helps that cinemas mostly include subtitles. Marvel and DC movies in particular are my favourite. I like how the superheroes are not just good looking but kind hearted people who work to save others on the planet. 

My dream is to someday become a coffee connoisseur and manager and maybe earn a higher income. My parents do not ask anything of me financially. What they want is for me to focus on saving money for myself, but I hope to be able to contribute towards their lifestyle expenses someday. They have done so much for me that I would like to be able to give back. 

I also want to be financially independent so that I can eventually buy my own home and travel around Malaysia. As much as I would like to visit overseas, exploring the different corners of Malaysia would be fun too. I especially like the beaches here — how the air feels against my skin and how you can smell the salty breeze close to the water.  

Another dream of mine is to accumulate enough savings so that I can rescue and provide shelter for more stray cats. I currently have three living with me and regularly feed the ones near my home.

Anje, one of the three cats that live with me is blind in one eye. I feel that she understands me and knows when to comfort me.

Anje, one of the three cats that live with me is blind in one eye. I feel that she understands me and knows when to comfort me.

Stray kittens which I nursed until they were well enough to be released

Stray kittens which I nursed until they were well enough to be released

What I hope for in life is to be able to do a job that I enjoy and to save enough money to do what I love — be it looking after stray cats, travelling or giving back to my parents.

Photos provided by Liza.

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