Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Deaf business owners still face obstacles, prejudice

Soon after customers arrive at Mozzeria for the first time, they notice something is different about the restaurant: Virtually every staffer is deaf.

Soon after customers arrive at Mozzeria for the first time, they notice something is different about the restaurant: Virtually every staffer is deaf.

Owners Russ and Melody Stein, who also are deaf, have run their San Francisco restaurant since 2011. They have a thriving business, achieved by overcoming obstacles that include the stereotypes about what they are capable of doing.

"We have the same skills as a hearing individual," Russ Stein said.

Deaf business owners may encounter prejudice; many don't have the resources they need. And while the Internet has made it possible to connect with vendors, bankers, customers, and government offices, it's not as accessible as it might be.

For instance, the Small Business Administration started a videophone service this year enabling deaf entrepreneurs to communicate via sign language with agency employees and making it easier to get help and information about loans and other SBA services. Previously, business 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.

It's frustrating to Melissa Greenlee, who runs, a Seattle-based website that helps deaf people find services and companies that accommodate their needs.

"While technology has been a wonderful advancement for our community in so many ways, it also has been my biggest barrier to advancement," she says.

Better resources are increasingly important because deaf people have the same ambition and ability to be business owners as those who hear, said Tom Baldridge, director of the business administration program at Gallaudet University, where growing interest in entrepreneurship matches the increase at business schools across the country.

Gallaudet, a private university for the education of the deaf in Washington, is giving its students experience in running businesses such as campus coffee shops. It also has hired a consultant to help the school 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.

He knows of no studies comparing how businesses owned by deaf people fare vs. those owned by hearing people. Many deaf business owners sell to deaf customers, which eliminates communication problems, he 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 have 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 said. "There have been times when I had to ask for interpreters, and I was made fun of; I was looked down upon."

Vendors and other business owners who can hear are often startled or awkward when they meet the couple. Some have assumed that because the Steins are deaf, they don't know what they're doing, Russ Stein said.

Some have been impatient about using pen and paper to communicate, or have said offensive or inappropriate things. "People ask, 'How do you drive?' " he says.

But most vendors adapt. Mozzeria's wine vendor, for instance, 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.

Among the prejudices deaf people deal with is the one that the best careers for them are teaching or counseling other deaf people.

Mara Ladines, who owns By Mara, a clothing manufacturer and store in New York, wanted a career in fashion design, but some counselors in college tried to steer her toward being a graphic designer, a job that would require less communication with others.

"They believed a deaf individual can't get a job in the fashion industry," she said.

Instead, Ladines took design courses and got jobs at retailers, including the clothing store H&M. In 2008, she began designing T-shirts and other clothes with a logo showing the American Sign Language sign for "I love you."

She started the business online. It grew to the point where she opened a store last spring.

Ladines connects with vendors and other businesspeople via email and a free service known as video relay, which enables deaf people to communicate in sign language with an interpreter, who then speaks to a hearing person via phone.

Ladines wants to keep building her business, but she's frustrated by a lack of resources to help deaf business owners. She wants to find a mentor who is sensitive to the deaf culture.

"It seems that most hearing individuals don't understand that a deaf individual can own a business," she says. "I feel I was born as a natural business owner."