Gallaudet hosts leaders from Small Business Administration, FCC to announce new videophone service for deaf entrepreneurs

June 16, 2015

Author: Phil Dignan

The U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) held a press conference at Gallaudet University to officially launch, in partnership with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), its ASL Video Phone Service on June 10.

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Myrna Orleck-Aiello, '81, founder of TCS Interpreting joined Gallaudet University President T. Alan Hurwitz in addressing a large crowd at the Living and Learning Residence Hall 6 (LLRH6).

After a brief video highlighting the new service, Hurwitz introduced Contreras-Sweet. Wheeler spoke afterward, followed by Orleck-Aiello. Following the press conference, Contreras-Sweet led a roundtable discussion focusing on the use of the video phone service and ways the SBA could utilize it to better serve the Deaf and hard of hearing in regard to entrepreneurship and job creation.

With this roll out, the SBA becomes the second federal agency to provide direct service to deaf and hard of hearing consumers. The FCC was first to offer a direct video line.

"Effective today, if you have a question about how to start or grow a business, you can connect with SBA employees who are fluent in both American sign Language and the language of business," said Contreras-Sweet.

In her speech, Contreras-Sweet introduced the two SBA employees in charge of starting the video phone service: Jarvis Grindstaff, '14, and Sophia Patrick, '15. Grindstaff is an economics specialist with the SBA Office of Field Operations and will work to expand outreach and assist with what SBA refers to as "reasonable accommodation request." Patrick will serve as the point of contact, bringing into her position a strong base of knowledge about SBA programs and services.

Wheeler followed with comments praising Contreras-Sweet and expressing his beliefs on how important it is to make not only the FCC and SBA accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people, but that other federal agencies should follow.

"Every one of us has been touched by how technology has changed our lives," said Wheeler. "The point that we at the FCC want to keep emphasizing is that we have the opportunity to use technology to attack the challenges that had existed for eons...It is as important to the American people, to all American people, that the kind of capability, the kind of leadership that the Administrator has shown, be across the federal government."

Wheeler said that he and Contreras-Sweet have already urged President Obama to take advantage of next month's 25th anniversary of the ADA and have all federal government agencies establish the ability to allow all Americans to communicate in the manner that the FCC and SBA now provide for deaf and hard of hearing people.

During the roundtable that followed the press conference, it was clear that this service was well accepted by participants. Made up of deaf business leaders, faculty, and Gallaudet Student Body Government vice-president, Ethan Sonnenstrahl, Class of 2017, participants gave positive discourse focusing on the specifics of the service and ways in which SBA could further support potential deaf entrepreneurs. All were complimentary of the efforts by SBA and the FCC.

 "If I was to open up a business today, my life, and everyone else's life would be so much easier," said Orleck-Aiello, who is the first deaf woman ever to receive an SBA 8(a) Certification. "I can see that this opens doors and opportunities... I hope to see more deaf and hard of hearing people participate in setting up and establishing businesses."

"Personally, I would like to see more of our students, Gallaudet students, feel empowered toward their own entrepreneurial spirit and to receive an opportunity, using direct communication and having access to make that happen, said Dr. Isaac Agboola, '81 & G-'83. Interim dean of the School of Business, Education, and Human Services (SBEHS). "I am very excited."

"I think that the spirit of entrepreneurship is very loud at Gallaudet," said Sonnenstrahl. "So, there is a great buzz on campus."

In his opening remarks, Hurwitz said that with the University's Department of Business adding a concentration in entrepreneurship, the announcement from SBA "...could not come at a better time." He also said that Gallaudet has worked over the past few years to expand opportunities for students to start their own businesses once graduating.

Greg Hlibok, '90, currently serves as chief of the Disability Rights Office (DRO) at the FCC. "This is the most important service, and it is about giving access to communication," said Hlibok. "It is really a common sense service that has become reality."

The ASL Video Customer Support Line is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The videophone number is 855-440-4960. Learn more about this service here.