Actress Liz TannenBaum, Left, and her interpreter, Jamie Drake, right, discuss a film about deafness created by Medill journalism students Rebecca Montag, Kathryn Ferrara and Molly Lister.

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The message to the small but passionate gathering at Inclusion Solutions was clear, but to many of them it was not new: Persons with disabilities are commonly overlooked or ignored by the mainstream population. 

About 50 people attended the inaugural screening of “A Fight to Be Heard,” created by Medill journalism students Molly Lister, Kathryn Ferrara and Rebecca Montag, about the potential challenges faced by deaf persons at some drive-through windows.

Evanston-based Inclusion Solutions offers several devices to businesses to help attract new customers – those with disabilities, who are often unable to access a business. A Big Bell on a shop door, for example, alerts workers on the other side of the door that a physically disabled person is outside, so they can put down a temporary ramp into the shop.

Fuel Call, recently implemented in the Shell Station on west Oakton Street and other nearby gas stations, similarly alerts workers inside that a customer needs to have gasoline pumped.

One of its newer services, said Inclusion Solutions owner Patrick Hughes, is called “Order Assist,” which uses a similar alerting procedure in drive-through windows. Persons who alert workers about their need for assistance are greeted at the window by a person ready to take the order, he said. Many Culver’s ice cream shops use Order Assist in their drive-through windows, Mr. Hughes said, but he has been having difficulty convincing the corporate executives at Starbuck’s to try it.

“A Fight to Be Heard” focuses on deaf actress and activist Liz Tannenbaum. As she orders hot tea at the drive-through window at the Starbuck’s on west Central Street, she learns from Mr. Hughes that Starbuck’s has again turned down his proposal and talks about her life and her activism.

“We wanted to make a film that is accessible to a wider audience,” Ms. Tannenbaum said through her interpreter, Jamie Drake.

“A lot of deaf people really love Starbuck’s,” said Mr. Hughes, but “deaf people cannot use their drive-through.” Mike Baskin, who attended the screening, said that his understanding was that Starbuck’s had its own way of dealing with deaf persons at the drive-through.  He said Starbucks’s philosophy, as it was explained to him, is that all customers should be treated equally, and that offering a different type of service to one type of customer violates that philosophy.

Starbuck’s did not respond to several emails (the company’s preferred way of communication) from the RoundTable about their policies for hearing-impaired customers at their drive-through windows. 

In the film, Ms. Tannenbaum does get her tea. When she pulls up to the window she calls out, “I’m deaf. I’ll meet you up there, OK?  Don’t talk to me. Thank you.” At the window she is able to make her wishes known, and she drives away, tea in hand. 

Ms. Tannenbaum, however, might not have been the ideal candidate for the message of the film, said some who knew her. Among their comments were “She’s irrepressible, unstoppable”; “She can speak a bit”; “She can smile and the world takes care of her”; “She’s comfortable at a drive-through”; “Liz can get a cup of tea, but it doesn’t have to be that difficult.”

Ms. Tannenbaum’s son is not deaf, though both his parents are. “My mother is unique,” he said. … “[M]y father doesn’t speak [when he wants something at a shop.] He goes into a store and writes stuff down.”

Meanwhile Starbuck’s and Inclusion Solutions – the corporate giant and the small company that empowers the disabled – are at odds over a goal they seem to have in common: serving the deaf with dignity and ease.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...