Mozzeria, a pizza restaurant in San Francisco that is widely reported to be California’s first deaf-owned restaurant, has recently been in the news. Mozzeria will soon be celebrating its fifth anniversary, and in the wake of growing demand for Mozzeria’s signature productions at food festivals, public events, weddings and corporate events, the restaurant has recently introduced a food truck. Founded by telegenic couple Russ and Melody Stein, Mozzeria was featured on NBC Nightly News in September of this year, profiled in Wired last summer, and also celebrated by the AP and the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

Deaf-owned businesses, largely enabled by technology that’s appeared in just the last decade or so, are on the rise. By some estimates, they’ve almost doubled in the last decade, from some 600 businesses in 2009 to an estimated 1,000 deaf-owned businesses today.

“The truth of the matter is that there is no accurate way of reporting the exact numbers of deaf and hard-of-hearing businesses, mostly because of the fact that there hasn’t been a uniform way to capture the data (i.e. census data, nature of business, degree of Deafness, etc.),” explains W. Scot Atkins, Ed.D, an assistant professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “So I have been using data from the now-defunct National Deaf Business Institute database, which at one time [circa 2009] had over 600 businesses listed… Based on my observation, the numbers have grown over the last 5-8 years and are still growing. My latest estimate is that the number is over 1,000 deaf-owned businesses in the U.S.”

Mozzeria’s owners last year sought to introduce its pizza to a larger audience, so took a three-week tour across the country in a custom trolley, which is now being used as a makeshift food truck.

Mozzeria’s owners last year sought to introduce its pizza to a larger audience, so took a three-week tour
across the country in a custom trolley, which is now being used as a makeshift food truck.

Opportunity and Technology

Here in Texas, Austin is a top city for deaf-owned businesses. Deaf people own all kinds of businesses. They own restaurants, auto repair shops, bakeries, yoga studios, technology companies, and accounting and computer consultancies. They are models, dancers, filmmakers, artists, teachers, therapists, photographers, landscapers, veterinarians, and, of course, deaf interpreters. There are far fewer professional limits for deaf people today than there were just a few decades ago. That’s partly because of technology that’s enabled all sorts of new communications options, and it’s partly because today’s society has a number of prominent deaf role models that help all of us better understand each other.

One of the most powerful technology advances that’s enabled deaf-owned businesses is something most of us already take for granted—video relay services, or VRS. Using VRS, a deaf person can initiate a video call at any time day or night to a VRS service, and within seconds a communications assistant who understands both sign language and English will appear. Seconds after gathering the deaf person’s message, the communications assistant in turn calls and delivers it in English to the intended recipient. It’s amazingly fast. Before the internet and smartphones, deaf people largely relied on fax machines or teletypewriter machines to take orders, which were neither simple nor quick. Coupled with similar high-quality videophones introduced by other electronics manufacturers, the availability of high-speed internet and sponsored video relay services authorized by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 2002, VRS services for the deaf have undergone rapid growth in the last decade.

Other kinds of businesses, including hospitals and doctors’ offices, own a service similar to VRS called video remote interpreting (VRI). In fact, one of the primary services that we at Deaf Interpreter Services offers is VRI. Read more about that here. The wonderful thing about VRI is that you don’t need any additional equipment beyond an internet connection and a webcam. Unlike VRS, VRI is often used to bridge conversational gaps between two people in the same location. A physician in an emergency room, for instance, will use a VRI service to summon an interpreter who understands sign language used by the deaf patient who has appeared in the emergency room. VRI services are used by individual businesses and are not federally subsidized.

Speaking of doctors: It turns out that there are quite a few deaf physicians practicing today. In 2005, one source put the number of physicians at 40, and by all accounts it’s grown since then. The Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss (AMPHL) is currently carrying out a survey to better track both the number and geographical distribution of deaf and hard-of-hearing physicians. One of the better-known deaf physicians is Philip Zazove of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who explained to CNN last year how he became one of the nation’s first deaf doctors in the early ’70s. Dr. Zazove has also written a memoir called ‘When the Phone Rings, My Bed Shakes.’

There are also a good number of deaf lawyers. Regular readers of our blog will recall that we reported earlier this year, on April 19th, 13 deaf lawyers were sworn in to the Supreme Court bar. There are estimated to be about 300 deaf or hard-of-hearing lawyers currently working in the U.S. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association (DHHBA), formed in 2013, counts about 100 of them as members.

Best Practices and Resources

Happily, for aspiring entrepreneurs, there are a wealth of resources — including networking, funding, business rating, directory and other organizations – available to deaf-owned businesses. The Deaf Entrepreneurs of America Foundation aims to provide value to deaf entrepreneurs in two ways: By training entrepreneurs to become successful business owners, and by teaching other businesses how to provide adequate services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. deaffriendly, which is sort of a Yelp for deaf-owned businesses, started as a pilot site called ‘deafreview’ in 2012 in Seattle, quickly expanded to six more cities, and then merged with its current owner. DeafRead curates the ‘best of deaf blogs and vlogs,’ and offers plenty of information about conferences, apps and other issues of interest to business owners.

RIT/NTID is helping prepare the next generation of deaf entrepreneurs by instructing them about both technology and business strategy, and Gallaudet just this summer launched an ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship’ program. ShoreTel, a company that specializes in providing business owners technology, has posted a great index of resources for disabled business entrepreneurs. The Small Business Administration provides a longer list of resources, and also offers tips on writing a business plan, getting financing, registering proper licenses and permits, and hiring and retaining employees.

Running your own business can be the ultimate adventure. Today, there’s more support than ever for deaf entrepreneurs interested in taking the leap.

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