Deaf man wins £50,000 business award

1 12 2008

Andrew Thomson runs a business in Scotland called Sign-Now, providing online BSL video-conferencing for deaf people. This service enables deaf people, who do not speak but use sign language, to communicate with hearing people over the internet. Brilliant.

He’s now received an award from easyGroup and Leonard Cheshire Disability for his work.

Anna says deaf awareness makes sense

5 03 2008

Anna Lickley is an inspiration to others as she runs Sense-Ability, a successful business raising deaf awareness and teaching sign language, whilst coping with profound deafness and Neurofibromatosis. She graduated from university with a degree in French. Here I ask her about her business and how she came to be where she is today.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 32 and live in Bristol. I’m deafened, I went deaf when I was about 19/20 and at university. I have an illness called Neurofibromatosis (NF2) which is genetic although mine started by genetic mutation meaning I am the first in my family to have it.

I learned BSL to Level 2 at Sheffield University and now have NVQ 3 and have done linguistics courses and things to learn more and more about it. I communicate in BSL any time I can when other people use it and I also communicate orally using lip-reading if needs be.

What is your current occupation and what have you done previously?

I’m currently running Sense-Ability which is an organisation offering Deaf Awareness, Disability Equality training and British Sign language teaching to businesses and organisations. If I am training, I travel all over the UK. Training sessions are usually one day or half a day, I also offer intensive courses in BSL Levels one and two or just the first unit of BSL Level one and introduction to sign language.

I also spend time working from home on my computer, taking bookings that come in through the website, planning sessions or keeping up with general administration.

I find that generally people are not confident at communicating with deaf and disabled people, the training usually really challenges people to make their communication more accessible. I also get people to think about barriers that they are creating, however unwittingly, through attitudes such as paternalism etc. People often say it has really made them think about changing the way they see disability and deafness.

It’s encouraging when I visit companies who already employ deaf staff and receive feedback from the deaf people that they have really noticed a change after the training: in the way people communicate and in their confidence at approaching deaf people.

I also run week-long residential courses, for individuals to book, in BSL Levels one and two. The venue in West Wales is lovely and though the week is pretty tiring for everyone, we usually have a good week. I think learning BSL intensively helps people to get to grips with it as a language rather then just learning vocabulary with English lip-pattern / word-order which can happen sometimes at Level one.

Previously, I worked at the University of Bristol in a unit that provides support for Deaf and disabled students.

Being self employed, what has been the hardest thing to cope with when you’re deaf?

Self-employment offers less support, for example I used to have a BSL interpreter in the office who interpreted phone calls for me and voiced my signed replies. Now I don’t use the telephone much as calls through TextDirect can be difficult and some people hang up before I get connected as they think it is a cold call. As I work different hours every week depending on when I have bookings, there’s no point trying for an interpreter through Access to Work. I usually explain to clients that email or SMS is the best and almost everybody has an email address so it’s not a great problem. Most people are great at adapting once they get out of automatically thinking of using the phone.

The bane of my job is booking interpreters because I generally can’t take bookings from clients at short notice because I have to allow time to find an interpreter. Finding an interpreter can be time consuming and something extra to think about. I wouldn’t train without an interpreter as I like my sessions to be interactive with the trainees getting involved rather than just me talking. It’s nice to be able to encourage / facilitate discussions.

Has the consultancy / training field adapted well to your hearing loss?

As I’m self employed I don’t have much contact with other training companies apart from those linked with disability type training like the University of Bristol or RNID. People I work with tend to be very clued up and able to adapt their working methods.

Apart from running the business, what do you do? What inspires you?

When I’m not working, I love the outdoors, fresh air and exercise, all of which help to clear my head. I enjoy running and going to the gym. I also love meeting friends for coffee or having people round for dinner or a glass of wine. I am a Christian and very much involved with church, both a hearing church and the deaf church.

How do you cope with networking and the social side of business communications?

If I go to a social event, I prefer to take a BSL interpreter with me as lip-reading groups of people is no fun. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions to using interpreters, first very unsure and talking to the interpreter but I usually explain the role of an interpreter and things improve. Explaining over and over again how to use an interpreter can get tiring but it is generally worth it, although I don’t always do it if I think conversations will be quick one-offs.

I don’t network that way very much, I prefer to approach people on a one-to-one basis, I find it gets better results anyway for this type of business.

What do you think of the online deaf community?

Actually, I’m not really part of it, usually because I spend a lot of time working on my computer. I find the computer can really drain you of energy if you’re not careful and so for socialising or relaxing I prefer to get away from it. Having seen your blog though, perhaps I should get more involved.

What’s been the hardest thing about setting up your own business?

I think being on your own is hard. You have to be responsible for everything so, if your computer breaks, you have to fix it and can’t just call the technicians as you could if you were a larger organisation. You need to do your own finances whereas other places might have their own finance department etc. It’s just needing to be flexible and learning many new things at once.

You can have times when work is very quiet (summer in my case where very few people book training) and times that are very busy when all bookings seem to come at once, both are tricky to deal with.

If you had your time over again, would you change anything?

I think deciding to run Sense-Ability was a good decision. It is sometimes hard and I get tired (linked with my NF2) but it gives me a lot more flexibility with my time. I am sure everyone’s life has ups and downs, good times and tougher times, I don’t think I’d change much.

Perhaps if I could change anything, I would prefer everyone in the UK to know sign language.

What are your aspirations, hopes and dreams in 2008?

That whatever 2008 holds will be a challenge I can meet!

Do you have any tips for other deaf people who want to be self employed?

I spent months deciding if it was the right thing to do but it worked well, you have to be ready to put in plenty of hard work and expect rough patches as well as good times. You must make sure it’s something you love doing.

I did a brilliant, very helpful, course before I started for people considering running their own business. It had information about creating a business plan, keeping accounts / tax issues, marketing, advertising and so on and I would recommend anyone to look around for something similar. There are lots of local support organisations for people setting up in business.

I also initially set up as a partnership with a friend and we later decided to split, to work co-operatively. He is now stepping out and looking for something new but it has been a big help to have someone doing something similar. I think we encouraged each other to take the step and it meant not feeling totally on my own. Perhaps it would be useful to look for someone you can work with / shadow / get advice from.

CLICK HERE to go to Sense-Ability’s website.

Deaf and self employed. Nigel asks – are you Game?

1 11 2007

Nigel has become famous among London’s deaf community and is now branching out into the rest of the world – that includes the hearing world! He is the proud owner of Game Ideas Ltd and has produced a new game called Cuberty.

Cuberty is a three dimensional word game which has been highly recommended by this year’s Good Toy guide. It’s fabulous. He brought one into the pub one night and that was it. Killed the conversation stone dead. (Deaf people can only look at one thing at a time, remember?!)

Be quick, as it’s a runaway success, and the christmas deadline is 10 December – it’s even earlier if you want a Cuberty set posted abroad. Nigel Cuberty is being sold to schools, retail outlets, individuals and on the internet. Nigel says, ‘It’s keeping me busy’ – well that’s the understatement of the year!

In March 2007 Nigel talked about the history of Cuberty and its exhibition at the Toy Fair in the BBC2 programme ‘See Hear‘. The presenters of the show and the schoolchildren who played it all spoke highly of the game. Nigel’s autobiography was published in April 2007 in RNID‘s ‘One in Seven’ magazine. The Inwords game has been published in the One in Seven magazine and in The Times.

Cue: Ooooooooooooohhh! (And no, I still haven’t asked Nigel for his autograph)

Words are formed across and down as in a crossword but also vertically downwards and above the playing surface. People think of it as 3D Scrabble but it is a better game. Trade enquiries are welcome. It costs £19.99 plus £4.99 for P+P (please enquire for P+P rates for overseas orders). You can buy Cuberty online or send a cheque payable to Game Ideas Ltd, and send it to Games Ideas Ltd, PO Box 311, Bicester, OX26 4ZZ, United Kingdom. For security, it will be sent as ‘signed for’ so give an address where someone will be there to sign for it. Otherwise your postman will nick it!

Help. I am surrounded by all these entrepreneurs! Intrigued, I asked Nigel how he likes being an entrepreneur who happens to have a hearing loss. Surely it can’t be easy? It must be that much harder when you are deaf as well. Nigel commented – ‘One thing is for sure, anyone who thinks setting up a business, let alone trying with hearing loss, is easy has got it wrong!’ I got him to sit still for five minutes and asked him some nosey questions.

Q. Being self employed, what has been the hardest thing to cope with when you’re deaf?
Nigel: Telephone conversations. I can’t make out what’s being said very well even though I have two digital hearing aids (Oticon Spirit II). At home, my BT Converse 225 amplifier phone helps a lot but if the caller is using a mobile phone and the reception is bad then it’s a nightmare. Answer phones – eek !

Q. Has the entertainment world adapted well to your hearing loss?
Nigel: Some people are very helpful, others aren’t. It depends on the person, but I have been very lucky with those I’ve met.

Q. How do you cope with networking and the social side of business communications?
Nigel: In meetings with more than two other people, it is a real strain. The best thing to do is to be positive about what you do hear and ignore the rest since stress makes the situation worse.

Q. If you had your time over again, would you change anything?
Nigel: I’d win the Lottery LOL

Q. Do you have any tips for other deaf people who want to be self employed?
Nigel: Go for it. Have no regrets – just try your best. If you don’t try, you’ll never know. Blind and deaf people have made it.

Game on, Nigel. Isn’t he fantastic?!

Deaf and self employed? Jane says – Think! about it

20 05 2007

A friend Jane is a fashion designer and is hearing impaired. She had a sample sale this weekend in Brick Lane, so when I was bribed with home made organic carrot cake – couldn’t resist this – I was persuaded to accompany her. I didn’t take much bribing did I, he he he.

Jane’s business, Think!, is based on fair trade, which means workers are paid a living wage rather than an unfair wage, and a portion of this is ploughed back into the local community. Traditional skills are retained and a contribution is made towards reducing global warming. Jane uses organic cotton, where the farmers don’t use pesticides – better for them and for the end-user. Pesticides kill and injure thousands of people every year. You can read more about fair trade and Jane’s ethical policies on her website. She has made many trips to India, sourcing all her textiles and labour from there.

I was on the way and Jane sent me a text with directions – ‘come out of Shoreditch and turn right, then right again to the Truman Brewery.’ Heh, good one Jane!

Jane was absolutely inundated with customers and she has done a superb marketing job, tying in her logo and values into her memorable brand of organic fair trade clothing. Jane has now joined our ‘SH club’, appearing on See Hear last year. I asked her a few questions about what it’s like to be self employed and deaf.

Being self employed, what has been the hardest thing to cope with when you’re deaf?
I can’t hear on the telephone very well and that has had a detrimental effect on my working life. Instead I rely on email and fax. I find that most people use email anyway, it’s a case of persuading them to adopt my chosen method of business communication rather than theirs. I also use a virtual office, which is a useful tool for deaf people.

Has the fashion world adapted well to your hearing loss?
There are companies out there that will go that extra mile for you, and there are some that won’t give you the time of day when they find out you are deaf. It’s not so different from any other type of business. You need tenacity, you need to keep working at getting your contacts and making them work well for you.

How do you cope with networking and the social side of business communications?
I find it very difficult to cope with social events as they are too noisy and hearing people under estimate how difficult it is to lip read a group of people. So I don’t network in this way, I prefer to talk to people on a more personal basis even though this means I have to network that much harder.

If you had your time over again, would you change anything?
I do regret not taking up some opportunities I was offered after doing my degree in fashion design. But that’s hindsight for you!

Do you have any tips for other deaf people who want to be self employed?
Go for it. If you are determined and really keen on your idea, do persevere, as it’s really great to work for yourself. Do take up any offers that come your way, no matter how busy you are. And keep at it.

Jane has proved that deafness need not be a barrier to success. She says nothing can beat the thrill of working for herself. Darren took her for a coffee break and as they walked down Brick Lane, they spotted a lady who had bought a Think! coat earlier, and she was wearing it – what a blast!