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A Win-Win for the Deaf Community: Deaf-Owned Businesses Create Opportunities, Change Perceptions

Lam, Jackie

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000547396.90971.57
Cover Story

Jackie Lam is the associate editor of The Hearing Journal.

‘The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts, considered in the light of their present employment, predicts serious problems may arise for deaf workers. Recognizing that the present [1972] occupational conditions are unfavorable for deaf persons, [vocational rehabilitation] administrators, parents, deaf leaders, and educators should be deeply worried about the future,” quoted Walter and Dirmyer of a 1974 report published by the National Association of the Deaf (Am Ann Deaf. 2013 Spring;158(1):41).

Thankfully, that prediction did not come true, for the most part. Compared with data in the report referenced above, results from the 2010 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that improved college education access has helped deaf and hard of hearing individuals close the employment and earnings gap with their hearing counterparts over the span of 36 years. Despite that, percentages of deaf and hard of hearing adults participating in the labor force have been on a continual decline. While more than 80 percent of them took part in the labor force in the early 70’s, that number dropped to less than 60 percent by 2000 (Am Ann Deaf. 2013). Fast forward to 2010, only 58 percent of deaf and hard of hearing individuals between 26 and 64 years old reported themselves as participating in the labor force.

Unemployment is one challenge; underemployment is another. One study found that deaf and hard of hearing individuals more often had a higher level of educational attainment than was required for their occupation (Am Ann Deaf. 2010 Spring;155(1):68). Not to mention deaf and hard of hearing employees face other barriers at work such as communication difficulties and employers’ lack of knowledge about deafness (JADARA. 2015;49(2):66). For these very reasons, more deaf and hard of hearing individuals are starting their own businesses—and new services have cropped up to help them.

One such service is the Communication Service for the Deaf's Social Venture Fund (CSD SVF), the first social investment fund or incubator with a sole focus on supporting Deaf-owned businesses. (From this point on, “Deaf” refers to Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and hard of hearing people.) Dominic Lacy, the chief innovation officer at CSD who spearheads the fund, said they cultivate success within the Deaf community by focusing on employment because it has impact beyond getting people jobs. “When Deaf people are employed and successful in their work, this creates positive perceptions of Deaf people and gives them economic power and helps uplift our community.

“However, un/underemployment remains a huge problem and one way to address this is through the expansion of Deaf-owned businesses because Deaf people are more likely to hire other Deaf people who face discrimination elsewhere,” Lacy said.

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BARRIERS AND STEREOTYPES

Even when a Deaf business owner is the picture of success, he or she still struggles with overcoming stereotypes. Melody and Russ Stein, the owners and founders of Mozzeria, which is one of only two Neapolitan pizzerias in San Francisco that's a member of Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana and has been featured in many national media outlets, said they still deal with common issues of hearing people who have never met or worked with deaf people, such as “‘how do you run the restaurant,’ ‘why did you employ deaf people with no training in restaurant,’ ‘I don't think you are capable of running the business.’”

Establishing credibility with the mainstream is difficult, especially when trying to create joint ventures or partnerships with companies that are yet to serve the Deaf community, said Joshua Beal, MBA, the owner of another CSD SVF-funded business DeafTax, which offers personal tax preparation services through Deaf tax professionals fluent in American Sign Language. “Most businesses I've tried to work with seem to be skeptical about the potential of the Deaf community as a market niche, so I've had to go at it mostly alone to expand financial service offerings,” Beal said.

Communication with hearing people itself could be a challenge. Sean Maiwald and his team at reFort, a Washington, DC-based startup that aims to reduce waste generated by people moving to or from residences and CSD SVF's latest investment partner, said that is the largest barrier they have experienced. “We have to hire interpreters and rely on video relay services to communicate with clients and customers,” they said. “A lot of business people and government offices prefer to use the telephone instead of email or other forms of communication.”

They also struggle to make use of materials and information designed to help entrepreneurs because of accessibility issues. “Not much content is captioned nor translated into ASL, so there can be a challenge in terms of a learning curve—it's more difficult compared to hearing people,” Maiwald and his team said. “We're used to working harder though!”

Despite these obstacles, Deaf-owned businesses are proliferating and flourishing. The number of Deaf-owned businesses has grown from just over 600 less than a decade ago to 1,000 across the country today, according to W. Scot Atkins, EdD, an assistant professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who estimated those figures in an interview with Entrepreneur (Jan. 3, 2017; http://bit.ly/2NV8CWv).

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A TURNING POINT

One factor contributing to this growth is undoubtedly technological advances such as captioned telephone and video relay service (VRS), where an assistant fluent in ASL and English facilitates the communication between a Deaf person and a hearing person on a video call in real time. VRS has been described as a turning point in one Deaf business owner's experience: “I talked with two hearing clients who didn‘t even know I was deaf because I asked the interpreter not to mention that I was deaf. The communication was very smooth. When I met the clients for the first time, they were surprised to learn that I was deaf” (JADARA. 2013;47(2):222-236).

For business support, Deaf entrepreneurs can now turn to CSD SVF. Launched in 2017 and funded by an investment managed by CSD's board, CSD SVF offers cash investments and resources like consultations, mentorships, and creative or marketing support to businesses selected through an application process. Lacy said they received 50 applications in the first round and chose three in varying stages of maturity. “Mozzeria managed to establish itself firmly in San Francisco and was looking to expand,” he said. “DeafTax was a stable, successful business looking to grow their clientele base. reFort was a true start-up. This being our first SVF investment round, we wanted to test the waters and learn as much as we could before our second round goes out later this year.”

CSD SVF's impact extends beyond the businesses it helps directly. Beal said it is “focusing on the Deaf community and generating the momentum that is needed to grow an ecosystem that can propel more Deaf people into a positive orbit whether as a business owner, employee, student, or community participant.”

Another source of support for Deaf-owned businesses comes from the community around them. The startup reFort was conceived during a business pitch competition called Climathon at George Washington University in fall 2016, and later received its seed money from Gallaudet University after winning an audience vote. None of this would have been possible without the language help provided by these organizations. Maiwald and his team at reFort said, “Kyle Duarte and David Levy from elumin.at were crucial to our success in the very beginning as they worked closely with GWU for the Climathon, and they are both fluent in ASL. GWU was able to put together a great team during the Climathon to provide feedback, support, and mentors. Also, they provided interpreters for all of the related events, which was amazing.”

Maiwald's experience emphasized the intrinsic value of ASL in many contexts and that technology is never a substitute for language. “American Sign Language should be front and center as we all would not have met, grown, or developed this business if it were not for our Deaf community from GWU, the Climathon, elumin.at, and especially for Gallaudet University as well as Communication Services for the Deaf,” he said.

An audiologist with an open, positive mindset can be another great asset to Deaf entrepreneurs, Lacy said. “It's important for audiologists to know and share the belief with their clients that there are many ways to be Deaf and successful that don't require speech or hearing. We see and are appreciative that more and more audiologists are becoming culturally aware and that training programs are incorporating Deaf cultural and ASL components into their coursework.”

Just as society needs to change its perception of Deaf people, there is a need to change the way people look at Deafness itself. “Audiologists function within the realm of sound and are trained to see deafness as a deficiency and to respond in a corrective or prescriptive fashion,” Lacy said. “Many people do see audiologists for this same reason, and there are many who see the ability to hear as a bonus and not as a necessity or core value to leading a good life.

There is an opportunity for audiologists to help instill a growth mindset in themselves and in the clientele they serve by stepping back and seeing that they may be overlooking the fact that there are advantages or benefits to being Deaf or hard of hearing that are conductive to being successful in the realm of business. There are countless people out who have succeeded in spite of others’ limited view of them, who thought they couldn't succeed—they said, ‘watch me.’

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A WIN FOR EVERYBODY

Staying true to the mission of CSD SVF to help the Deaf community, all three businesses currently funded by it—Mozzeria, DeafTax, and reFort—have an almost all-Deaf staff. The only exception is DeafTax, which has seven Deaf and one hearing employees who all know ASL. Stein, who manages the biggest Deaf staff at 17 employees among the three with her husband, said nearly all of their employees had never worked in the restaurant or food industry prior to joining Mozzeria. She and her husband trained, coached, and developed the team they have now. “We are so proud of them because those who started out as interns are the manager and team leaders now,” she said. The owners of Mozzeria plan to open a second location in Austin, TX, and create more jobs for the Deaf community.

reFort has 10 part-time contract employees who are all Deaf and work on an as-needed basis. Maiwald and his team said they pride themselves on providing opportunity and support to their Deaf community and hope to hire more people more consistently in the future. “We will have an internship program this fall, stay posted for details,” they said.

How can Deaf individuals go from looking for a job to creating one? The key elements of success in business for Deaf entrepreneurs are not that different from those for hearing ones. One is to believe in yourself, Stein said. “You only have one life to live, so you have to live it the best you can,” she said.

Others include a clear vision and perseverance, according to Beal. “It's so important to clearly identify what you're trying to do in terms of delivering value to the end consumer,” he said. “From there, you can make changes you need to meet the expectations of your target audience.”

Maiwald and his team stressed the importance of finding a network and mentors, working hard, and being persistent, which helped them get through the challenges they have encountered. “We do our homework—we research and discuss our next steps, ideas, and more,” they said. “We consult with our mentors, as well as consult what other businesses are doing. We also outwork the competition, which comes second-nature to us.”

When a Deaf entrepreneur succeeds, the whole Deaf community wins. “Deaf-owned businesses, when successful, also create positive perceptions in the public,” Lacy said. “The hope is that Americans will see the value Deaf people bring, and other businesses will be willing to hire other Deaf people.”

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