Trader Joe's employee who is deaf overcomes struggle to communicate with customers in masks

Kerry Justich

People everywhere are adjusting their communication styles as a result of the coronavirus and protocols to help stop the illness’s spread, from social distancing to mask-wearing. But a deaf man living in Vancouver, Wash., and working at a local Trader Joe’s during this critical time is showing just what adapting looks like to him, all while encouraging others to be more mindful of the barriers that the deaf community faces.

“When I first started working at Trader Joe’s, the obstacles were small, such as learning and improving my lip reading skills with my coworkers and various customers who have not had much experience talking with a Deaf person,” Matthew Simmons tells Yahoo Lifestyle via email. “Over the two years, myself along with the crew coworkers and our customers, we have enhanced communication by teaching them basic ASL (American Sign Language) signs. Since the coronavirus began, things have changed tremendously.”

Simmons, originally from Santa Clarita, Calif., works at the supermarket on weekends while working full time as a teacher’s assistant at a school called Washington School for the Deaf. The part-time Trader Joe’s gig consists of cashiering, bagging, stocking and, most importantly, interacting with customers, which has recently become difficult.

“I had been noticing customers and crew members wearing their masks and that caused me to have some anxiety,” Simmons says. “As a Deaf person, I rely heavily on using my lip-reading skills that I have acquired since childhood.”

Trader Joe's employee who is deaf is using a customized T-shirt and white boards to communicate with mask-wearing customers. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Simmons)
Trader Joe's employee who is deaf is using a customized T-shirt and white boards to communicate with mask-wearing customers. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Simmons)

Simmons explains that while working on the floor and encountering people wearing masks, he began telling customers that he needs to be able to read their lips in order to help them. However, a lot of people didn’t want to lower the protective gear. “It made me upset because I couldn’t help and left me feeling defeated,” he says. Once he was moved to the register, he ran into the same issue with customers trying to make conversation while he rang their items up.

“For a quick remedy the management staff decided to have another co-worker be with me at all times when I was on the register acting as a communication bridge for the time being,” Simmons says. “It still left me feeling truly ‘different’ or ‘disabled’ having to depend on someone to do my job that I am completely capable of doing and was hired to do.”

Fortunately, he found a shirt online that inspired him to make his own work shirt. “It states that I am Deaf and need to read lips and on the back to ‘tap me on the shoulder,’” Simmons says.

Simmons wrote on his Trader Joe's shirt to inform customers that he is deaf. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Simmons)
Simmons wrote on his Trader Joe's shirt to inform customers that he is deaf. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Simmons)

“I also was given three small white boards for me to carry around while on the floor in case any customers had questions they could write it down for me and not have to lower their masks making communication no longer a problem,” he continues. “When it was time for me to be on a register, I was given permission to write on the Plexiglass, saying, ‘Hi My name is Matthew. I am Deaf and read lips,’ and made a down arrow to the small white board for any questions or comments to be written down.”

Simmons has been able to engage in more normal interactions with customers as a result, which he says has put a smile on his face. Some have even expressed their gratitude toward him for working during this difficult time. “The first customer read the Plexiglass and wrote down on the small white board, ‘It must be hard with everyone wearing masks! Thank you for your help. :)’” he shares.

Simmons received a thoughtful message from a customer. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Simmons)
Simmons received a thoughtful message from a customer. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Simmons)

As for his coworkers, Simmons says he’s even taught them about some differences in communicating while wearing a mask, despite their use of ASL. “When wearing a mask it cuts off 55 percent of facial communication and even if using ASL, it is heavily based on facial expressions in order to make sure the communication is understood clearly,” he explains. “It is almost similar as the hearing world would say ‘tone of voice.’ So clearly people wearing masks hugely impacts all communication for a Deaf person.”

Throughout the learning process, however, everyone at the store has shown Simmons a tremendous amount of support and understanding. “They have all been very supportive and have gone the extra mile to see to it that we are still communicating as a team...no FAMILY...should be!” he writes. Now, he hopes that others can learn from his experience as a deaf person and the response of those around him.

“I hope that my experiences during this pandemic will make people be more compassionate toward each other. Working together towards a common goal, breaking down barriers.… showing compassion to one another instead of prejudices,” he says. “I am a proud member of the Deaf community who also has acquired skills to navigate in the hearing world, and yet both of those worlds often collide or have their own stigmas. If I can help educate or inspire others during this very unique time then that is amazing and I have faith and am hopeful because the lengths that my fellow TJ team went to so that I would feel supported and no different than any other employee really shows the human kindness we have for one another. That is enough!!”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle

Want daily wellness, lifestyle and parenting news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.

More From