Businesses across the country have struggled to find safe and sustainable ways to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is easy to imagine how issues surrounding COVID-19 might compound when a business owner is deaf.
Brandy Mathes, owner of Busy Bee Creations, is hard of hearing and has adapted her business to accommodate her life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mathes has transitioned to “basic” operations, so that she can prioritize her three children.
Randall Haggard, owner of Def-InkMe Printing, is deaf and has temporarily closed his t-shirt-printing business during the pandemic.
Both business owners participated in a panel event Nov. 17 hosted by ASL POP, an organization at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that engages with deaf students, ASL students and the deaf community in East Tennessee.
At the panel, Mathes and Haggard showcased their business and detailed how they have operated in a predominantly hearing world.
Mathes founded Busy Bee Creations in 2019, after she started designing custom coasters. Her friends encouraged her to market towards the deaf community, which led to her developing a primarily deaf customer base.
However, Mathes noted that she has many hearing customers as well. She communicates with her customers through American Sign Language and spoken English.
Her most popular design across all customers are those featuring the “I love you” sign. The sign combines ASL signs for the letters “I,” “L” and “Y.”
“So many people know the sign, and it inspires a lot of people, deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing,” Mathes said.
Busy Bee Creations offers custom designed earrings, coaster, bracelets, ceramic tiles and more.
During COVID-19, Mathes has been forced to scale back her operations. Mathes chose to become a stay-at-home mother after she had her three children, two deaf and one hearing.
Between online school and the regular responsibilities of caring for three younger children, Mathes sometimes only has time to work on her business on the weekend. Mathes emphasized that her children always come first.
Mathes operates her business completely through her Facebook business page. However, she has plans to create a website and get a business license after the COVID-19 pandemic calms down.
Randall Haggard’s Def-InkMe Printing is a T-shirt printing business that Haggard owns with his wife. Haggard was born hearing and became deaf at the age of two.
Haggard became interested in the printing process after obtaining his master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“After I got my degree, I was looking for a job with no luck. Then I became interested in printing shirts and it turned into this,” Haggard said.
He originally began his business with a manual printing press. Haggard has since upgraded to a direct-to-garment printing machine.
The direct-to-garment process requires a lot less physical labor, but is equally as time consuming due to the nature of the equipment cleaning process according to Haggard.
This method also allows Haggard to “print on anything flat,” which will allow Haggard to create a wider variety of products for his customer base.
Haggard communicates with his customers through email, written English and ASL. Similarly to Mathes, he has a primarily deaf customer base.
Haggard and Mathes note that technology has been a very big help in starting their businesses and communicating with hearing customers who do not sign.
Haggard says that he prints mostly ASL or deaf designs but also does custom designs.
Def-InkMe Printing has been temporarily closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Haggard plans to reopen when things are safer. He tends to uses the winter and fall months to restock and work on maintenance for his equipment as the spring and summer months are usually when Haggard conducts the majority of his business.
Despite the pandemic forcing him to shut down, Haggard remains passionate about his work and affirms that he still “really enjoys printing.”
Def-InkMe Printing does all of its business through its Facebook business page and plans to reopen as soon as it is able.
ASL POP provided interpreters throughout the entire panel. This helped to create an accessible environment for signers and non-signers alike to ask questions and interact with the panelists.
The organization continues to engage with ASL students and the deaf community through virtual events. In order to keep up to date with ASL POP’s most recent events, check out their Facebook page here.
Whether business owners are deaf, hard of hearing or hearing, new technologies are allowing businesses of all kinds to interact with customers of all hearing statuses. COVID-19 has indiscriminately impacted deaf and hearing businesses alike.
Thanks to supporting communities of deaf and hearing customers, businesses like Busy Bee and Def-InkMe are positioned to return stronger than ever and grow beyond once the world overcomes COVID-19.