Shannon Heroux, a deaf woman in California, shared two videos on TikTok after she said she was denied service at a Dunkin' because she was unable to communicate with staff. The videos went viral and brought new attention to the struggles of people who are deaf or hard of hearing during the pandemic.
Heroux, who uses a cochlear implant and reads lips, told TODAY Food that she was driving for Uber when she decided to stop into a local Dunkin' to get a drink between rides. When she entered the establishment, she had her mask on, but when she approached the counter, she could not hear the employee, who was standing behind plexiglass.
"When I got to the front I pulled my mask down and just let the employee know really quickly 'Hi, I'm deaf, how do we do this?' And I pulled my mask back up, and I was ready to order," Heroux said in a video interview. "She waved to call over her manager ... A couple minutes go by and I try to reach over to her, like 'Hey, I have to go, can I just place my order?'"
Heroux said that at that point, the manager came over and began speaking to her, but she could not understand him because of their masks, the plexiglass and distance between them, and other ambient noise in the shop like music and coffee machines.
"I keep telling him, 'I'm deaf, I can't hear you. I'm deaf, I can't hear you,'" Heroux said. "And he was still speaking to me. I can tell when people are talking because the mask moves, obviously. And I kept saying, 'I can't hear you, I need to read your lips.'"
Heroux said that the manager kept gesturing at the door and "repeating the same phrase over and over," which she assumed to be a pleasantry like "have a nice day." She tried to ask a customer in line behind her to translate, but could not hear him through his mask, and while there was a piece of paper on the counter that she wanted to use to write her order down, there was no pen in sight.
"I could tell he was just repeating the same phrase and after the third time I said 'You're really not going to take my order?' And he just shook his head no," Heroux said. "And my heart sank, like 'What did I do wrong?' So I exited the Dunkin' and I got in my car and it took me a minute to understand that I was just denied service."
In an emailed statement, the coffee chain told TODAY that they were "committed to creating a welcoming environment" for guests.
“We take matters like this very seriously," said a Dunkin' spokesperson. "At Dunkin', we are committed to creating a welcoming environment and treating every guest with dignity and respect. We have contacted the guest to apologize, and we are actively working with her to resolve the matter.”
Heroux said that she first posted the emotional video on Instagram. At the encouragement of a friend, she decided to share the video to TikTok. There, the video — which she split into two parts because of TikTok's video time limits — garnered millions of views and thousands of likes and comments.
Heroux said the response has been "very overwhelming."
"I felt it was important that I speak up so people can understand how exhausting it's been during this pandemic," Heroux said.
Heroux noted that this wasn't the first time she's had difficulty completing daily errands during the pandemic.
"I remember being at Costco and the (cashier) kept talking, and I could hear her, but I couldn't understand her. I could hear her talking but the words were not reaching me," Heroux said. "I kept saying 'I need to read your lips,' and she wouldn't do anything. It's just been that, kind of constantly."
Heroux said that, like at Dunkin', the precautions that stores have taken, like plexiglass shields and distancing between customers, make it difficult for her to hear. While she does have a cochlear implant, her partner Michael Neumeyer compared using it to listening to an unmixed music recording — it's difficult to filter out different levels of noise, like background conversations and ambient noise, so it is often necessary for her to read lips. Heroux said that early in the pandemic, she quickly adapted to try to associate certain phrases with the way a mask moves.
"We have to train ourselves to understand the words so we can catch them the next time," Heroux said. "I was training to make myself understand basic conversational starters at the grocery store, like 'How are you today? Would you like a bag? Would you like a receipt?' And it still gets exhausting. ... It's just another layer of work."
Neumeyer said that he and Heroux have tried to use masks that have a clear portion over the mouth that are supposed to be designed for lip-reading, but have sometimes not been allowed to wear them in stores. Neumeyer said that the masks are also uncomfortable, and Heroux said that she has never seen them used by anyone else.
Heroux said part of why she posted the video was because of how frustrated she has felt during the pandemic.
"I wanted people to know that this has been happening the whole pandemic. Many times I feel lesser and it felt important that I speak up so people can understand, because it's exhausting, very exhausting," said Heroux. "Even without the mask, it can be tiring, because I have to stay so focused, so can you imagine how much more work I'm putting into trying to listen through a mask, to accommodate everybody else?"
"I understand that the pandemic has stripped a lot of the deaf community of their independence, as it did for me," Heroux said, noting that she often only went out in public with her partner until she adapted better to hearing people through their masks. "I had to be so dependent on (Neumeyer) in the beginning ... You get exhausted, and it's just been hard."
Heroux said that she will be meeting with the manager of the Dunkin' store on Sunday, since the location was independently owned. She said that she hopes this encounter will lead to a "good, positive outcome."
"We're going to talk about it and let him know how I feel and what could have been done and what we can do from that," Heroux said.
Heroux said that she hopes her incident at Dunkin' and the viral videos will lead to change.
"I replay that moment in my head over and over, but I don't let it get to me, because I know that people are supporting me. It just sucks that it happened the way it did," Heroux said, citing support from the deaf community, TikTok users, and those who complained to Dunkin' on her behalf. "Sometimes I wonder like, what if I took a stand before this happened? (Before this,) I'd thought about writing a letter to my governor or my congressman, to let them know how hard it is and ask what can be done for the deaf community, but here we are, and hopefully this helps make change."