At This Store, ASL Is the Language of Belonging

Celebrating You

Husband-and-wife associates who are deaf forge a bond with a manager who takes the time to speak their language.

two walmart associates with their manager smiling at the camera

When Vanessa Bennett started as manager at Store 2493 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she met husband-and-wife associates, Ali and Maryam Ibrahim.

Ali and Maryam are both deaf and fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) but out of necessity, they relied on texting and lip reading when communicating with other associates and customers. And lip reading was impossible when folks wore masks. 

Vanessa saw an obvious opportunity after meeting the couple. If you don’t speak the same language as your associates, then you learn their language!

“It just struck an emotional chord with me,” she shares. “I couldn’t imagine not making the effort to learn how to communicate with them.”

Learning some new ABCs

At the start, Vanessa knew a few basic signs — thank you, please and sorry. Then Ali noticed her using the ASL alphabet to spell out words, and he started coaching her.

Vanessa made time outside of work to watch YouTube videos that teach sign language. She watched a daily news show delivered in sign language with subtitles. She worked alongside Ali in the store to learn even more. She received flashcards from Maryam, who taught ASL before joining Walmart. Always a teacher at heart, Maryam would carefully correct Vanessa, so her form was accurate.

“She was learning quickly! As she went on, she got better and better and we were able to communicate a lot easier,” Ali says.

He also saw another associate, Jacob Armstrong, using sign language. “They were both learning to sign. And they weren’t using their voices at all. They weren’t speaking, only signing,” Ali shares with a smile. “I was really impressed by that! It was so great.”  

Connection leads to growth

“I think everybody needs to be communicated with,” says Vanessa. “They’re not going to be as passionate about their job if they aren’t communicated with.”

Ali agrees, “It’s improved everything so much to be able to communicate with my manager.”

Ali and Maryam are thriving. They are currently team leads and look forward to continuing to grow their careers at Walmart.

Hopes for the future

With other associates learning sign, life at work is a little easier for Ali and Maryam. But even more importantly, it’s just a “beautiful thing” to Ali. It’s built inclusivity and engagement at their store. And it’s helped raise the visibility of deaf people. He hopes more deaf people come to work at Walmart and that more hearing people learn ASL.

He says, “I want the world to know, hearing or deaf, we’re all equal. I want the world to know about ASL. It’s just a different way of communicating. Even if you just learn a few words, it makes a big difference.”

Do you want to learn ASL? A good first step is learning the alphabet so you can spell out words (called finger spelling):

graphic of ASL alphabet

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