Small Talk: Working to overcome obstacles, prejudice
NEW YORK >> Soon after customers arrive at Mozzeria for the first time, they notice something's different about the restaurant: Virtually every staffer is deaf.
Owners Russ and Melody Stein also are deaf, and have run their San Francisco restaurant since 2011. They've managed to have a thriving business by overcoming the obstacles deaf people often face when they become business owners, including stereotypes about what deaf people are capable of doing.
"We have the same skills as a hearing individual," Russ Stein says.
Like the Steins, many deaf business owners face challenges that those who can hear may not. They often encounter prejudice. Many don't have the resources they need. And while the Internet has made it possible for them to connect with vendors, bankers, customers and government offices, it's not as accessible as it could be.
For instance, the Small Business Administration started a videophone service this year enabling deaf owners to communicate via sign language with agency employees and making it easier to get help and information about loans and other SBA services. Previously, owners had to use teletype services that were slower and didn't offer the human interaction video relay does.
But at the same time, few online videos and online seminars designed for small business owners are captioned or interpreted using American Sign Language.
It's frustrating to Melissa Greenlee, who runs deaffriendly.com, a Seattle-based website that helps deaf people find services and companies that accommodate their needs.
"While technology has been a wonderful advancement for our community in so many ways, it also has been my biggest barrier to advancement," she says.
Better resources are increasingly important because deaf people have the same ambition and ability to be business owners as those who hear, says Tom Baldridge, director of the business administration program at Gallaudet University. There's a growing interest among Gallaudet students in entrepreneurship, matching the increase in business schools across the country.
Gallaudet is giving students experience in running businesses like campus coffee shops. It also has hired a consultant to help the school introduce the idea of business ownership into all its academic subjects.
"A lot is happening right now beyond a few courses in entrepreneurship," Baldridge says.
Baldridge knows of no studies comparing how businesses owned by deaf people fare compared with those owned by hearing people. Many deaf business owners sell to deaf customers, which eliminates communication problems, he says.
But when the hearing world comes into contact with deaf business owners, the reactions are mixed.
The Steins have encountered discrimination from people who hear and don't want to make accommodations to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The couple has run into resistance when they asked for help at local government offices, including times when they were trying to get permits required for running a restaurant.
"We have had our rough moments," Russ Stein says. "There have been times when I had to ask for interpreters, and I was made fun of; I was looked down upon."
Vendors and other business owners who can hear are often startled or feel awkward when they first meet the couple. Some have assumed that because the Steins are deaf, they didn't know what they were doing, Russ Stein says. Some have been impatient about using pen and paper to communicate, or have said offensive or inappropriate things.
"People ask, 'How do you drive?'" Russ Stein says.
But most vendors adapt to working with the Steins. For instance, Mozzeria's wine vendor has helped them learn more about the restaurant business. As for customers, some seem awkward when they first come in, but they soon relax and enjoy their meals. "They learn to overcome their fear," Melody Stein says.
The positive and negative experiences of the Steins are similar to those experienced by other deaf small business owners. Many have dealt with prejudice, including people believing that the best careers for deaf people are teaching or counseling other deaf people.
Mara Ladines, who owns By Mara, a clothing manufacturer and store in New York, wanted a career in fashion design, but some counselors in college tried to steer her toward being a graphic designer, a job that would require less communication with others.
"They believed a deaf individual can't get a job in the fashion industry." she says.
Ladines instead took design courses and got jobs at retailers, including clothing store H&M. In 2008, she began designing T-shirts and other clothes with a logo that shows the American Sign Language sign for "I love you." She started the business online and it has grown to the point where she could open a store last spring.
Ladines connects with vendors and other businesspeople via email and a service known as video relay, which enables deaf people to communicate in sign language with an interpreter who then speaks to a hearing person via phone. These services are free.
Ladines wants to keep building her business, but she's frustrated by a lack of resources to help deaf business owners. She wants to find a mentor who is sensitive to the deaf culture.
"It seems that most hearing individuals don't understand that a deaf individual can own a business," she says. "I feel I was born as a natural business owner."