September is National Deaf Awareness Month. Today, in the United States, there are an estimated 11 million deaf and hard of hearing individuals who still face challenges associated with access to communication and employment. Despite legislation and entitlement programs, 73% of deaf people are not offered sign language interpreters, while 70% of deaf people are either unemployed or underemployed. Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) was founded forty years ago by Ben Soukup, a factory worker in South Dakota, to help the deaf community achieve the same basic human rights that all Americans should be afforded.
Today, the organization represents over 800 employees and is headed by Ben’s son, Chris Soukup. Chris’ vision for CSD builds upon his father’s work with an emphasis on technology-driven solutions that put control of the communication experience into the hands of deaf individuals themselves. Part of this strategy, discussed more below, includes CSD’s recently launched Social Venture Fund. The Fund is currently accepting applications for its first cohort of businesses or services that help create prosperity for deaf people everywhere. To learn more about CSD, Medgadget had an opportunity to sit down with Chris to hear about his family’s story as well as the organization’s current and future plans to advance awareness and access for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Medgadget: Let’s start with some background on the Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) organization.
Chris Soukup: CSD was founded in 1975 by my father, Ben Soukup, as a grassroots nonprofit organization that began due to a simple problem. My father lived in the upper midwest where a profoundly deaf person had very limited employment opportunities: either work as a printer or in a manufacturing role. My father ended up working at a large meat processing facility where my grandparents and uncles all also worked at some point in their lives. All told, there were about a dozen deaf men working at the business. One day, my father noticed a change in his pay stub. The company did not make any effort to communicate the reason behind the change which was frustrating not only due to the lack of information, but also due to the fact that Deaf employees had no way to communicate with management about their concerns regarding the change. This event sparked a conversation about the need for businesses to provide the basic, fundamental human right of communication to the Deaf community through interpretation services. My father was president of the South Dakota Association for the Deaf and so the idea made its way through to the other leaders of that organization who were ultimately able to secure a $15,000 grant to form CSD in November of 1975. Based on his experience at the meat processing facility, CSD’s very first services focused on sign language interpretation. Today, CSD’s mission and role have evolved substantially.
Medgadget: CSD was formed based on a need for better communication access. What has been the evolution of communication for the Deaf community and where is it going next?
Chris: As part of the ADA, states were charged to take on the responsibility for communication and relay services; basically making sure anyone could use a telephone to communicate. Prior to the 1990s, a deaf person could not just pick up the phone and make a call. I recall how my grandparents, on both sides of my family, who were deaf would come over to my house so that my mother could make phone calls for them. After the ADA, relay services were instituted so that a Deaf person could call into where an agent would then place an outbound call on the Deaf individual’s behalf. This gave the Deaf community a level of autonomy to do basic things on their own that they had not experienced before. This eventually evolved from a fixed endpoint where someone using this service had to purchase a specific piece of hardware to now a web and video-based product where a Deaf person can use an interpreter to make outbound phone calls.
Coming back to the ADA, the legislation was designed to promote a communication experience that is the same for a Deaf person as it is for a non-Deaf person. The caveat, however, is that this directive is limited to the best available technology. Today, we believe there is another bar beyond these more advanced relay services. That is the ability to call directly into a business the same way that businesses currently offer multilingual call lines. Why should a Deaf person need to go through a relay? Instead, we believe in advocating for businesses to setup direct services to allow communication with Deaf individuals. Connect Direct is a program at CSD working to make this a reality and ultimately realize a communication experience that is even closer to the spirit of the ADA.
The best possible experience would be something akin to a web chat where a consumer can click on a link and have a direct ASL customer support video call. This is still an emerging area with companies starting, slowly, to adopt these direct communications strategies. One wonderful advocate for these direct services for Deaf individuals has actually been the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Medgadget: In addition to Connect Direct, are there other programs CSD has developed?
Chris: Another initiative we have is Vineya which is trying to improve upon the paradigm of language interpreting, or signing agencies. Until a few years ago, language interpreting agencies operated like travel agencies from the 1980s. You would call in, the travel agent would do the leg work figuring out what they could put together for you, and they would return to you a package for which you would pay a set amount but have very little control over. In that model, you have to have a high degree of trust that the travel agency will do a good job. Sometimes it works and sometimes you aren’t happy with the outcome. That industry has now exploded and is completely malleable by individuals themselves today. Similarly, with signing agencies, you call into the agency and they would do all the work setting you up with an interpreter. They might not always be the right interpreter for the job and the transparency into cost is very limited with.
Vineya is basically a technology concept building off of what has already seen success in other verticals and applying those insights to modernize the way interpreting services are provided. A big part of that modernization is the increased transparency and shared decision making with the Deaf individual themselves. The platform gives the Deaf individual an equal say in defining the communication services they are looking for such as being able to decide which interpreter they want to work with. With Vineya, we are again working towards a destination where the Deaf person is in complete control and empowered to participate in the decision-making process.
Medgadget: The programs you’ve mentioned all have a technology component to them. Does CSD do its own development?
Chris: Yes! All of these are actually coming right out of CSD where we have in internal software development and innovation team. We’ve setup an innovation space at CSD where we have people who are very passionate about clearly identifying problems and proactively solving the challenges of our community.
Medgadget: Beyond communication and communication services, how has the vision and role of CSD changed since its inception?
Chris: The arc of social progress for the Deaf community has advanced in increments. Originally, there was a focus on the fundamental needs around communication access so people could get the information they needed no matter where they were, like the hospital. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, was an important milestone in terms of that original goal. This was a starting point, but not a definition of the role CSD wanted to play. Over the last 42 years, CSD has tried to continually elevate what is possible for the Deaf community and what opportunities are available to them. Our ultimate goal now is getting to the point where there is no difference in the opportunities between Deaf and non-Deaf as well as signing and non-signing individuals.
Where we have unfortunately not seen as much progress today is in employment opportunities. The data we have seen shows a 70% unemployment rate within the hard of hearing population, especially among those using sign language for communication. This has a trickle down effect impacting both the social and economic status of our community and so we are orienting our resources to address this problem head-on.
A few or our programs tackling the unemployment challenge for Deaf individuals are CSD Works and CSD Learns as well our recently launched incubator and venture fund, the CSD Social Venture Fund. All of these programs are focused on building bridges between Deaf people with skills and corporate entities.
Medgadget: Can you tell us more about these programs to tackle the challenge of unemployment, particularly CSD’s new fund and incubator?
Chris: At CSD, we have to combat the issue of underemployment on as many fronts as possible to make a dent in the numbers. CSD Works and CSD Learns focus on full-time employment opportunities as one avenue. But what about those who want to be their own boss and want to run their own business? No resources exist today specifically for Deaf entrepreneurs. This was the genesis to the idea that there should be a fund to identify high potential ideas and those who could turn those ideas into action. This kind of support ties back to the broader goal of being able to demonstrate the capability of the Deaf community and individuals in that community to bring concepts and products into the world. Positive visibility is an important part of improving the perception of our community. If we can affect how Deaf people are perceived we continue to move towards a world where Deaf and non-Deaf people are considered to be on an equal playing field.
Our incubator will involve strategic mentoring, back office support, and a lot of help with the nuts and bolts of how to run a business. Currently, anyone who is Deaf with a good idea can submit a proposal for consideration. Once we have a stronger sense of the concepts and ideas that people are bringing to us, then we can better shape how the rest of the incubator will function to cater to those opportunities. Our goal is to fund the first wave of business concepts by the end of the year so send us your ideas!
Medgadget: Are there any nascent areas out there that CSD is starting to look at?
Chris: One of the areas to pay close attention to is the development of mobile health innovations. There is a lot of uncharted space and remote health monitoring represents a groundswell of activity that has tremendous potential for the Deaf community. The vast majority of that 70% of unemployed Deaf individuals are on Medicaid or Medicare and are receiving social security benefits. Since there is a lot of effort involved in getting an interpreter, they might put off going to the doctor due to the effort. The result is that much of their care ends up taking place in the emergency room where interpretation services can be very expensive when you have to pull an interpreter at two in the morning. There is tremendous potential in the idea of regular health checkpoints that can proactively identify a patient’s health status and connect them with a general practitioner before their condition gets worse.
This area will be one of the next steps for CSD. We have been exploring ideas in this space for about four years now as more and more technologies, such as Bluetooth-enabled at-home blood sugar capture tools, open up new possibilities for the Deaf community. Another aspect of this opportunity is that Deaf people are often in nursing homes or assisted living facilities where they can be alone and isolated. Getting resources to support these individuals and their wellness is important, especially for those who may already be facing a communication barrier. We’ve heard anecdotes about Deaf people in nursing homes who have gone weeks without human interaction if there is no one there to sign with them.
Medgadget: What are you excited about that’s coming down the pipeline for CSD?
Chris: Right now our venture fund and incubator program is a big focus for us. CSD Labs will be formally rolled out soon and there will be additional technologies and projects that we are excited to begin working on through that program. In addition to the mobile health opportunities discussed, some other technologies we’re particularly excited about include facial recognition, geolocation, and speech-to-text. All of these have potential applications for the Deaf population and we want to be in the mix as part of the driving force within the evolving ecosystem of these and other technologies.
Medgadget: This has been a great opportunity to delve into an organization at the forefront of the deaf community. Is there anything else you’d like to add as we launch into Deaf Awareness Month (September)?
Chris: A few last thoughts. First, one program I haven’t mentioned is CSD Creative which is focused on creating ASL marketing content. We have been encouraging government entities and corporations to produce content that is accessible to the Deaf community. The message is that we are customers, we have value, and we are spending money on your company so you should make an effort to build a relationship with us.
Second, the work of CSD is something we have been looking at expanding internationally. The challenges we have had in the U.S. really pale in comparison to the rest of the world. Everything we have done in recent years as part of our new model and way of operating is building towards scale so we can eventually take our efforts well beyond the U.S. Part of that transition is the continued focus on software-drive, turnkey solutions that can have an impact on people’s lives no matter where they are. We already have a full scale operation in New Zealand today and have been operating there for a number of years. We also have pilots going on in a number of other countries where we are learning about the best ways to do things while recognizing country-specific funding opportunities, laws, and attitudes about the Deaf community, which differ from culture to culture. Pilots have brought a lot of insight and continued efforts outside of the U.S. are something we are committed to.
Finally, there is some really important messaging we’re working to put out there to challenge conventional thoughts on Deaf people and Deaf identities. There is a mindset that being Deaf is a disability that needs to be solved or fixed. However, we are trying to combat that perspective because we see human diversity as a profound part of the human experience. Deaf individuals are part of that diversity which adds both color and texture to the mosaic of our humanity.