Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Business

Deaf business owners overcome obstacles and 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 that 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.

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, which serves deaf and hard-of-hearing people, is giving students experience in running businesses like campus coffee shops. It also has hired a consultant to help the it 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.

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."

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.

 
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