Deaf Trader Joe's employee isn't letting the pandemic stop him from helping customers

Working at a grocery store during the COVID-19 pandemic is a stressful situation, but for Matthew Simmons, it made it nearly impossible to do his job.

Simmons is deaf and relies on lip-reading to help most customers at the Vancouver store. So when they started wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus, Simmons couldn't be of much help to those who asked him where to find Gorilla Munch or Trader Joe's frozen lasagna.

"When customers (wearing masks) come 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,'" Simmons told Today.


"Some of the times, 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 continued.

It was also difficult for him to communicate with his coworkers.

The store's first attempt to help Simmons communicate during the crisis was to put another team member with him at the register. Although it was a big help, it made him feel "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."

Simmons works at Trader Joe's part-time on the weekends and during summer. During the week, he's a teacher's assistant at a school for the deaf.

COVID-19 hasn't just made life difficult for deaf people to communicate with the hearing world, it's also caused problems among those who communicate through American Sign Language.

"When wearing a mask it cuts off 55% 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," Simmons said.

To keep his on-the-job independence, Simmons found some new solutions to help him so his job. He purchased a shirt online that says "I'm deaf" on the front, and "tap on the shoulder" on the back. He also got three wipe boards to carry around with him so customers can ask him questions.

He also had Plexiglas put in front of his register to protect him from the virus and wrote "Hi My name is Matthew. I am deaf and read lips'" on the protective barrier.

"When I opened the register, the first customer read it and wrote down on the small white board stating, 'It must be hard with everyone wearing masks! Thank you for your help. :),'" he said. "This made me feel better and I was able to start smiling again!"

Simmons's story is a great example of someone with a disability and their employer coming together to make the best out of a difficult situation for the worker, the store, and its customers.

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