When Face Masks Kept Him From Helping Customers, A Trader Joe’s Employee Who’s Deaf Got Creative

Kelsey Hurwitz
Photo credit: Matthew Simmons
Photo credit: Matthew Simmons

From Delish

So much has changed since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, and one place that has seen quite a bit of frenzy is grocery stores. Outside the stores, customers stand six feet apart and wait hours to get their items. Inside, customers quickly scamper about wearing masks, trying to get what they need and leave the company of strangers as soon as possible. All of this change has put pressure on grocery store employees, who are bravely working as essential workers during this time. But the change that impacted Trader Joe's crew member Matthew Simmons the most was the implementation of face masks.

Simmons, who works at a Trader Joe's location in Vancouver, Washington, is deaf, and is usually able to assist customers and communicate with his team members by reading their lips. When everyone began wearing face masks, that quickly changed.

"I had been noticing customers and crew members wearing their masks, and that caused me to have some anxiety, because as a deaf person, I rely heavily on using my lip-reading skills that I have acquired since childhood," Simmons told Woman's Day via e-mail. "When the customers wearing masks came up to me to ask a question on the floor, I always said 'I am deaf, and need to read your lips so I can help you.' Sometimes, customers didn’t want to lower down their masks and shook their heads 'no' and walked away from me. It made me upset because I couldn’t help and left me feeling defeated." He also noticed the problem while working the registers when customers in masks were talking while he rang them up, and he couldn't tell because of the masks. "I was not ignoring them or being rude, but I simply did not know they were speaking to me."

Simmons says that wearing a face mask cuts of the majority of facial communication, and that even if you do know American Sign Language, communication remains tricky with a mask because ASL is heavily based on facial expressions to communicate tone of voice.

When Simmons raised the issue with his assistant manager, they tried to come up with a plan that would keep them and the customers safe while also allowing Simmons to communicate effectively.

Step one was personalizing Simmons' Trader Joe's T-shirt, which was inspired by a shirt he saw online. "I happened to find a shirt online that said 'I'm Deaf' on the front and 'Tap On the Shoulder' on the back," Simmons said.

Photo credit: Matthew Simmons
Photo credit: Matthew Simmons

Step two involved some old-school tool: white boards. "In case any customers had questions, they could write it down for me and not have to lower their masks," he said. And when working the register, he was allowed to write on the plexiglass: “Hi My name is Matthew. I am Deaf and read lips,” along with an arrow directing customers to the white board below for any questions or comments to be written down. The sign on the register helped from the first customer Simmons rang up, who wrote on the white board, “It must be hard with everyone wearing masks! Thank you for your help."

Photo credit: Matthew Simmons
Photo credit: Matthew Simmons

Seeing the customer's message was a relief to Simmons who said he was "able to start smiling again." He even had one customer who told him that her daughter has hearing loss, and smiled when she heard about what Simmons was doing. "She wanted to come meet me," Simmons said. "But due to the virus, that is going to have to wait for now."

In the meantime, Simmons will be with the rest of his essential crew on the floor at Trader Joe's helping to make the chore of grocery shopping just a little bit more pleasant for the customers he encounters.

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