CLEARWATER — Sean Belanger reached into his pocket to show his audience a glimpse of the future.
It was January 2007. The leader of a fledgling telecommunications company run by and for deaf people, he was making a speech to the local deaf community. An interpreter at his side repeated his words in sign language.
The CEO took his BlackBerry out of his pocket and hoisted it in the air. He promised to bring a luxury to the deaf that hearing folks take for granted — the ability to make a phone call wherever, whenever.
"One day, you are going to have a mobile video phone," he said, and his audience roared.
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Z Video Relay Service has thrived since it relocated from Sioux Falls, S.D., to downtown Clearwater in 2007.
ZVRS provides equipment and interpreters that allow deaf people to make phone calls. Using a videophone, webcam or even some cell phones, deaf people can call each other and talk using sign language.
A deaf person also can call a hearing person by using the services of a live remote interpreter, like those who work for ZVRS. The interpreter watches the deaf person signing on a videophone screen, then speaks the words to the hearing person on the other end of the line.
At the company's office, the workers' cubicles have low walls, which suits the 95 employees who use sign language. The firm is the largest employer of the deaf and hard of hearing in Florida. More than half the workers are deaf.
Most of the company's local employees work in customer service and marketing. Fewer than 10 video interpreters work in Clearwater; more are contracted to work at eight call stations across the country.
Although the interpreters can hear, they don't feel apart from their colleagues at ZVRS. But they know they are the minority.
"Being in this culture, the shoe's on the other foot," said interpreter Aralyn Petterson. "We don't interpret for deaf people — we interpret for hearing people. We interpret for the signing-impaired."
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A growing company moves to downtown Clearwater. And the principals are not Scientologists. How does this happen?
"There's no way I'm going to Sioux Falls," Sean Belanger of Largo thought as he was considering taking the job of company CEO in 2006.
Almost the entire staff happily relocated to Clearwater, known for the Family Center on Deafness and the Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf.
Last year, ZVRS met a longtime goal by debuting a mobile phone application that allows certain smart phones and iPads to make calls via a remote translator — an industry first.
The company markets a line of videophones to deaf and hard-of-hearing customers, who buy at a subsidized price.
There's a market for ZVRS' services. Roughly 34 million Americans have significant hearing loss and nearly 6 million are profoundly deaf.
Last year ZVRS' revenues totaled $30 million; the 2011 projection is $45 million.
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The deaf world is a small one. Consider the frequent intersection of the lives of two senior vice presidents at ZVRS, both deaf.
Phil Bravin, 66, is a former IBM executive. Tim Rarus, 44, was a college homecoming king who married his queen, a former Miss Deaf America. Their daughter, Zoe, lends her first initial to the company's name.
Through 40 years, the two men can't seem to escape each other.
In the 1960s in Connecticut, Bravin and his wife were friends of Rarus' parents. Their paths crossed again in the late 1980s at Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C., college for the deaf and hard of hearing. Rarus was student body president. Bravin was one of four deaf members of the 21-member Board of Trustees.
When it came time to find a new university president, Bravin chaired the search committee and Rarus served on it. The deaf trustees voted for a deaf candidate, but were overruled by the hearing majority, which appointed a hearing president.
"That was like a slap in the face," recalled Rarus, who galvanized Gallaudet's students to shut down the school for a week, barricading the campus gates with buses and making national news.
The newly appointed president resigned and was replaced by the deaf candidate. It was a watershed moment. It helped the deaf know they can determine their destiny, Bravin said.
Since then, the development of video relay has been pushed primarily by deaf people determined to ignore the label "handicapped" and achieve the same ease of communication hearing people have.
The deaf are not handicapped, those at ZVRS emphasize. They just speak another language.