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Co-workers help deaf Trader Joe's employee overcome unexpected COVID-19 challenge -- reading lips

Matthew Simmons reads customers' lips if they don't know sign language. Protective masks created an unexpected communication barrier between them.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — A Vancouver man is sharing how co-workers are helping him through an unexpected work challenge due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Matthew Simmons is a part-time clerk at the Vancouver Trader Joe's. He's also deaf and relies on lip-reading and speaking skills to communicate with customers who don’t know American Sign Language.

“They're fascinated,” said Simmons through an ASL interpreter. “'Wow, a deaf man working at a grocery store? Awesome!' It really shows we can do anything.” 

But when customers started wearing masks due to the coronavirus, it created an unexpected communication barrier. Simmons could no longer read their lips, leading many confused customers to walk away from him.

“I started to get anxiety because I wasn't sure how to react,” said Simmons. “I didn't know what to do.”

Simmons said his boss, Alexandria Baker, got an idea. She took one of Simmons’ Trader Joe's T-shirts and wrote "Deaf, I read lips" on the front, and "Deaf, please tap me on the shoulder for help," on the back. Simmons said right away customers started lowering their masks just long enough to ask him questions.

“It's been such a positive experience with no concerns from customers,” he said.

Trader Joe’s managers also let Simmons write a message to customers on the Plexiglas shields at cash registers and gave him wipe boards to use at the checkout stands. One customer wrote, "It must be hard with everyone wearing masks, thank you for your help!" If all else fails, Simmons said co-workers are always near to help bridge the communication gap.

“They're always there for me because we're a team," said Simmons. "And not just a team truthfully, we're a family and that's very important in my heart.”

Simmons expressed his appreciation in a now-viral Facebook post. By Monday, readers had shared it nearly 5,000 times and sent him countless messages, many from the Deaf Community.

“Really inspiring messages regarding the shirt,” said Simmons. “They told me that they had told their bosses and asked if they could make the same kind of shirt that applied to what they did and I said absolutely! Go ahead!"

Simmons works full time as a teacher's aid at the Washington School for the Deaf. He said whether it's working through a job challenge or something else entirely, he hoped his story would remind others that if they need help, it's always okay to ask.

“Simply don't give up,” said Simmons. “Don't be afraid."

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