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Washington Food Market Becomes Hub for Deaf Community

A year-old food market in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood has become a unique hub of shopping and dining for the city's Deaf community.

One feature that draws many hard of hearing customers to Union Market is the ability to communicate with staff members like Thadeus Suggs. The 23-year-old lunchtime food vendor from Seattle interacts with them easily because he is fluent in American Sign Language.

Suggs, who also is Deaf, began working at the historic market weeks after it opened in September 2012, following a major renovation.

Since then, Suggs has been on leave from his undergraduate studies across the street at Gallaudet University - the only university in the world specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students.

With the help of Gallaudet interpreter Carolyn Ressler, Suggs explained what he likes about his job.

'Deaf Mecca'

"One nice thing is it is so close to Gallaudet, which by the way is the 'Deaf Mecca'," he said. "And with that, we are providing services to the Gallaudet community as well as the community at large. I think they benefit from it, as do I."

Suggs can read lips and interact with people verbally, as well. His boss at the TaKorean store, Ross Mayhood, said that makes him a well-rounded communicator.

"He is probably the most valuable member of our staff. And he has been a big part of how popular we are with the Gallaudet crew. There are maybe 10 to 15 people that come in every day and specifically just want to deal with him."

Deaf employees make up about 10 percent of the market's workforce. They also attract regular customers like Cary Barbin, who works at the nearby Gallaudet Clerc National Deaf Education Center.

"I love the fact that this is a sign language environment," said Barbin. "Many of the employees sign, so I can order my food in American Sign Language, and with that, there is not much of an issue."

Employment hub

About 8 million Americans have 'difficulty hearing', according to a 2012 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau. It defines the term as "experiencing deafness or having difficulty hearing a normal conversation, even when wearing a hearing aid."

The Washington Metropolitan Area, where Union Market is based, provides those Americans with some of the best job opportunities in the country. The Census Bureau says 64 percent of working-age area residents who are hard of hearing have jobs, versus the national average of 49 percent for working-age people with difficulty hearing.

Market employee David Uzzell, a recent Gallaudet graduate who is Deaf, said many people in his community also work for the U.S. government.

"They are very good about hiring Deaf employees in the federal system," said Uzzell. "Educational institutions also predominantly hire Deaf students and graduates."

Friendly design

Another attraction of the market for the deaf community is its user-friendly layout.

Gallaudet planning director Hansel Bauman encouraged the developer to build a 'deaf space' that is sensitive to Deaf people's needs.

"In terms of visual language, [they want] to be able to see one another and communicate clearly while they are walking," said Bauman. "What that means is, you're not looking at the path forward. So you need a little bit more room, you need to have pathways that are clear of obstructions."

Union Market has tried to incorporate several aspects of deaf space into its design. There is lots of light, all the vendors are in one big room, and the aisles between them are wider than in a typical store.

Developer Steve Boyle, managing director of retail real estate company EDENS, said those features also have a broader objective.

"The market itself really was meant to be an anchor for the community," he said.

"So whether you can hear or not, whether you are white or black, whether you are old or young, we have always seen Union Market as a special place for all folks in [Washington] D.C. It was not truly designed around deaf design principles, simply because we do not really understand them the way we need to - yet," said Boyle.

Overcoming barriers

Alena Francis, another Deaf employee, said dealing with some customers can be challenging.

"When they find out that I am deaf, it kind of throws them off a little bit. And sometimes people react very harshly and it is kind of hard. They will ignore me and just walk away."

But hard of hearing worker Emily Stemper said most people she encounters at the market are more understanding, even the staff.

"The hearing people who work here are all willing to learn sign language," she said. "And even if they do not know much, they still try, or they use the paper and pen method, or even gestures."

Stemper, a Gallaudet student who is on leave, said that positive attitude toward the Deaf community makes the market unusual among U.S. retailers.

"You don't really see that outside of D.C. or the Northeast area [of the United States]. So it's really nice," she said.

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