Deaf Business Owners in Austin Work to Overcome Communication Hurdles, Stigma
By Stef Manisero
May 8, 2017
Many people dream of one day owning their own business — a dream that’s easier for some to live out than others. But as our Stef Manisero shows us, overcoming those hurdles can be awfully sweet.
“When we first came to America, I remember seeing lots of restaurants and companies and thinking, ‘How do those folks become owners of restaurants?'” said Inna Giterman, owner of Crepe Crazy in Austin.
Those were Giterman’s thoughts when she moved to Austin from Ukraine in 1990.
“My husband’s mother had great recipes,” she said.
So, she hit the road.
“It was just a traveling thing that we liked to do because I liked to cook,” added Giterman.
But the final leap came with a push from her customers to open a brick and mortar location.
“Dec. 3, 2015 we opened up here,” she said. “They kept coming back, they didn’t see us as different.”
But Giterman felt different.
“I was born deaf, and I have deaf children, a deaf family, and I have to be honest, our several attempts, it was a fail, because it was hard working with people from the hearing world,” she said.
Giterman said she spent a long time watching people who can hear get jobs, while searching for her own recipe.
“And then they stay in that job for a long time,” she said. “For deaf people, that same story is a hard fit.”
Across town, the story was the same for Nick Buchanan and Mario Essig, of Pepperbox Coffee.
They decided to give selling coffee a shot.
But before this, Buchanan spent years trying to break through in his tech sales career.
“You go through school and at the end it’s still, even though you’ve got that degree, it’s hard to find work,” said Buchanan.
Essig said while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he just couldn’t get ahead.
“You know there’s a movie called “Office Space,” you know, I feel like that guy with the stapler in the basement. That’s who I feel like,” he said.
Brandi Rarus works at Communication Service for the Deaf.
“It’s a huge challenge in our community, a huge one,” said Rarus.
She says employment is by far the community’s biggest issue.
Nearly half the deaf population — 48 percent — is unemployed, and 70 percent is either unemployed or underemployed, meaning they don’t have enough paid work, or aren’t doing work that fits their skill level.
“So, the numbers are — they’re big,” said Rarus.
Rarus said companies often shy away from hiring deaf people because of communication concerns.
“Often employers don’t know how or where to go to get the resources they need to hire deaf people,” said Rarus.
Then there’s the negative stigma.
“Disability — the word itself is not positive,” said Rarus.
That’s why, for Inna, Nick and Mario, the solution was simple: Create your own company.
“People come up to the cabinet — or the counter here — and start to speak to us, and I’ll say, ‘Wait, deaf! How can I help you?”
She added that the introduction is sometimes met with an apology.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I didn’t mean it,’ and we’re like, ‘That’s fine, that’s what we’re here for, that’s what the menu’s here for,'” said Giterman.
“They check the box, they read the menu and hand it in,” said Essig of the ordering process at his business.
The trio said they recognize that not everyone can do what they did.
“There’s a lot of, you know, disabled people that are struggling with getting jobs, and we’ve experienced that,” said Essig.
These employers decided to lend a hand to the discouraged employees they once were.
“I prefer to hire deaf employees, naturally, because of communication reasons, making sure the kitchen is more efficient,” said Giterman.
So far, they’ve only hired deaf people — about 30 positions between the two businesses.
“A change of mindset, a change of heart,” said Rarus. “Do we want to build a world where everyone’s the same, or do we want a world of diversity, where diversity is embraced and supported?”
It’s what Nick, Mario and Inna now serve up.
“Hearing people are realizing that deaf people are just as equal and are having an influence, that’s where I feel moved, that we’re seeing each other as equals now,” said Giterman.