Celebrating the deaf business owner


The BDA held an event in conjunction with the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed for deaf people who own businesses or who are freelancers.

Last November, as part of its 125 anniversary celebrations the British Deaf Association teamed up with the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) to host an evening celebrating the work of Deaf business owners, freelancers and the self-employed.

The BDA wanted to recognise the contributions these people have made to the economy and creating opportunities for other deaf people through employment and showing the world what we are capable of.

ipse bannerIPSE is the largest association of independent professionals in the EU and represents thousands of freelancers, contractors, independent professionals and consultants from every sector of the economy, in both government and industry.

The evening opened with three talks. Louise Williamson from Meades Contractors spoke about how to manage your tax. Esther Stanhope, a former BBC producer who now works as an impact coach talked about how to make a positive impact and pitch with personality – a good business idea alone is not enough, it has to be sold in a way that attracts people. Stanhope’s tips were surprisingly simple – stand up straight, look at people in the eye and smile, for example – but effective. She talked about meeting deaf people while working at the BBC and noticing that using sign language gave deaf people an advantage in the body language element of good communication.

After the evening she tweeted: “Speaking at the British Deaf Ass and IPSE is the biggest buzz ever. Great audience I’ve learnt a lot.”

Then Linda Day, company director of Signworld – an online sign language learning tool – talked about unique selling points, or USPs, which set your business apart from others. She has turned deafness on its head and made it one of her key USPs and insists that other deaf businesspeople can do the same, urging them to “remove the word ‘can’t’ from your vocabulary”. You can read her speech below.

Using your Deafness as a positive USP in business

linda dayTranscript of speech made by Linda Day, Vice Chair of the BDA’s Board of Trustees and Company Director of Signworld. This speech was delivered in BSL.

As Deaf people, we’re used to people telling us we can’t do things and that our Deafness will hold us back in life. All our lives we’ve had to negotiate for access and overcome problems. So it might seem strange at first when I say you should be using your Deafness as a positive to help you and your business stand out.

As the famous quote goes: “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can, except hear.” With that in mind, I want you to remove the word ‘can’t from your vocabulary and turn it into ‘can’. Your Deafness makes you stand out as a business person with a truly unique offering – it’s your USP.

So, first of all, what is a USP and what does it mean for your business? A company’s unique selling point, its USP, makes it clear to the customer that there is a specific benefit to them for having that product. For example, the Lynx deodorant adverts do this in a very blatant way: spray yourself with Lynx and attract lots of women!

Being Deaf can bring a different USP in business; Deaf people will always stand out from the crowd when surrounded by non-Deaf people

The question you have to ask yourselves is this: What makes you different from other businesses? Do you know what it is? Can you explain it to your customers, to your friends and family?

This is important because your USP should be guiding nearly everything you do in business. In order to be remembered in a crowded marketplace, it helps if your business has a trait worth remembering. If you can explain your USP in two or three sentences, or even in a few words, then great! If you can’t, work on it until you can.

We often think our business USP should be about the company, “regardless of who you are”. But what if your USP is you?

Being Deaf can bring a different USP in business; Deaf people will always stand out from the crowd when surrounded by non-Deaf people. We use BSL, resulting in a flurry of physical activity rarely seen from those who don’t use it. Those who aren’t used to Deaf people will automatically remember us – often their immediate discomfort of being presented with a Deaf person signing will change to one of pleasant surprise, sometimes awe – how often have we seen hearing people say “I wish I could sign”? Now that you have their attention use that to your advantage.

Deaf people are good at problem solving as we face barriers in all our lives yet we never allow it to beat us. The same is true for Deaf people in business. You’ll be surprised how good at negotiation you are. Think of all the negotiating you have done because of your Deafness; think of your ‘conversations’ with Access to Work!

As a deaf person you stand out from the crowd. You can use this attention to your advantage – you can use it to talk to them, sell yourself and make them remember you

Never forget the element of surprise – Deaf people are often accompanied by one or more interpreters. It makes us stand out – it even looks, in some cases, as if we are some kind of VIP with our own special entourage. While most of us aren’t comfortable with how that looks, it makes hearing people curious and intrigued. Once you’ve got their attention, use that to your advantage. Grab their attention, talk to them, sell yourself and make them remember you.

In business, our Deafness is a key part of our USP because it makes us different and memorable enough to stand out from the crowd. As Deaf people, we have many strengths that set us apart from hearing business people and these help other people see exactly what we can offer.

Remember, Deaf people can do anything hearing people can, except hear. Your Deafness makes you unique. It’s your USP. Use it to your advantage.

“Working for yourself is challenging but rewarding”

The BDN meets some of the business people who attended the BDA/IPSE event and comes away feeling inspired.

As business-owners and freelancers mingled and exchanged business cards over wine and canapés after the talks, the BDN grabbed the opportunity to meet some of them, find out what they do and whether they found the talks useful.

Someone who didn’t find the talk on tax useful because he already knew it all was Kevin Whalley, an accountant who had been working for a West End chartered accountant firm for nearly 20 years when he was made redundant. Unable to find another job, he set up his own business and built up a client base through word of mouth.

Karen Belcher had been working as a BSL teacher for several years when she decided to make the leap and go freelance five years ago. She set up her business BSL Training two years ago delivering courses in family communication as well as BSL and Deaf awareness. The family communication courses are aimed at families with deaf members, especially children and are tailor-made to suit the family’s needs – focusing on vocabulary used in their homes.

wendy andersonLike Whalley and Belcher, Wendy Anderson had been working in her field for years before setting up her own business – she was a social worker for several years before managing a county-wide deaf services team overseeing frontline social work services. As one of a handful of deaf social workers fluent in BSL, she was frustrated by the fact that she could only work with deaf people in her own borough. She says: “I became aware of how a lot of deaf people in their own areas did not have a social worker specialist in deafness assigned to their cases whom themselves are fluent in BSL at native level. Where they did, sometimes the skills needed didn’t meet the needs of the deaf people.”

She felt she could bring her expertise to more people if she was freelance so she set up Deaf Independent. In addition to being a nationwide children and family social work service working with deaf and deafblind people, Deaf Independent also offers translation of court reports and other parenting resources into BSL or plain English.

One of the more unusual businesses represented was stone craftsmanship – Louis Francis is a classically trained stone and letter carver with a specialism in architectural and monumental stone carving. After studying at City & Guilds of London Art School, he started doing small stone gifts for friends and family. There was a lot of interest with people wanting to commission stone gifts so he set up his business Francis Stone Design in July 2014. His main business comes from carving memorial headstones.

Rewards and challenges 

Whalley says working for himself has been “more challenging and more rewarding”. Working to one’s own schedule and having flexibility is a draw for Belcher and Francis – but “within reason!” Belcher says. Anderson says working for herself has allowed her to “be creative in [her] responses”: “Knowing that Deaf people are finally able to get independent deaf specialist social workers with expertise in children and families front-line social work” has been rewarding for her.

Working for oneself or owning a business brings with it a lot of advantages but there are a lot of challenges too. Anderson says she is always “spinning lots of plates!” and Belcher says “it can be very lonely working on your own”. For Francis it’s the long hours: “It is not like 9-5 work. It is 7 days a week. And there’s no holiday or sick pay!”

It’s tough but extremely rewarding knowing you are making a real difference. I would say the biggest fail is to never try

All mention communication, interpreters and Access to Work as challenges for deaf businesspeople. Whalley says communication with his clients is his biggest challenge and for this he uses interpreters paid for by AtW.

Francis says: “Obviously, deaf people are always going to be facing communication issues. Funding like AtW helps with this by paying for interpreting/note-taking/language support.” He said that this alone wasn’t enough and that deaf people need to “find inventive ways to aid communications when support isn’t in place or available, as effective communication is vital for business”. He has found an effective solution for phone orders: “There are online companies that offer services for a small fee like telephone PAs which will act as a receptionist for your business, so that you don’t miss out on telephone trade.”

kevin whalley louis francis

Belcher worries that: “There is a lot of ‘Start up’ support within local boroughs, but it is a grey area as to who provides the interpreter, the speaker or yourself. If you are ‘Starting up’ you may not have AtW. It’s possible there are a lot more Deaf people out there with fantastic ideas but may not have access to a ‘Start up’ support network.”

While there is a lot of information out there about tax for businesspeople not all of it is accessible for deaf people. Anderson says “the biggest challenge is finding accessible information about tax affairs – this is why the BDA’s first
ever initiative to celebrate and support deaf entrepreneurs is very welcomed”. Francis said the tax workshop “opened [his] eyes to the world of online accounting”. Belcher said she would have liked a whole session on tax itself and hopes to see something like this in future.

Unique selling points

Francis found Linda Day’s talk on USPs useful: “USPs is a major part of a business plan but I had only one USP which was ‘quality hand carved stone and services’. The talk has made me go back to my business plan, to add two more
USPs, as I learned it is better to have multiple USPs rather than just the one.”

The talk was reassurance for Belcher that she was on the right track: she had already given her USPs a lot of thought to set her business apart from others in the Deaf community. “I have learned to review my USP every now and then as I realised via Linda’s talk that I have grown via the business.”

Deaf people need to find inventive ways to aid communications when support isn’t in place or available, as effective communication is vital for business

Need for a network?

Whalley thinks a deaf business owners’ network would help people to “share problems and get business from each other”.

Belcher says it was “lovely to chat to other business owners and freelancers” at the BDA/IPSE event and she would like to see a network too to share experiences and to network, as would Francis who says it would allow them to “gain other business owners’ perspective and rack each other’s brains”.  Anderson said: “Given the hard time we have had with AtW – what would be useful is feeling we are valued – the BDA with IPSE are to be congratulated for celebrating what deaf businesses and freelancers do.”

She continued: “It’s tough – it’s hard work, but extremely rewarding knowing you are making a real difference. I would say the biggest fail is to never try.”