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These Hearing-Impaired Found Great Bosses--Themselves : Jobs: Owning their own firm helps them escape a life of low-level positions. About 35 businesses in the Los Angeles area are run by the hearing-impaired.

June 24, 1992|BARBARA MEEHAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Scott Johnson had many jobs: bank teller, window cleaner, deliveryman for a nursery, to cite a few. "I worked for over 10 companies, hoping to rise to an executive position," he said. "However, discrimination and prejudices were my obstacles."

Johnson, 31, a Reseda resident who is hearing-impaired and tired of working for others, decided to start his own handyman business, fixing up old houses for resale. It's called Fussy Cleaning, and he has been at it for more than seven years, mostly in the San Fernando Valley.

Hearing-impaired workers often find themselves stuck in low-level positions.

"The biggest problem is communication," said Deco Martinez, a 23-year-old deaf woman who is seeking employment. Many deaf people feel isolated in a hearing environment, where they cannot discuss their work with colleagues, and this often leads to depression, she said.

Also, Martinez said, many deaf people communicate in American Sign Language, which differs from English in grammar and sentence structure. When a deaf person tries to communicate using pen and paper, a prospective employer who does not realize that English is the applicant's second language can be misled into thinking he or she is uneducated.

Some hearing-impaired people are finding greater success and satisfaction in running their own businesses. Johnson's business is at "full steam," he said. He can read lips, and when that presents difficulties, he said, "I request them to write what they say, so I don't miss important points."

Hearing-impaired people own about 50 small businesses in California, said Gary Viall of the Small Business Administration in Washington. About two-thirds of those are in the Los Angeles area. And Viall said the numbers are increasing.

Keeping a small business afloat--even in the best of times--is not easy. And these are not the best of times. But for Richard Lofrese, who is 31, hearing-impaired and a Chatsworth body and paint specialist, owning his own business is worth the risk. "We pray this business survives the next five years successfully," he said.

Lofrese formed a partnership with James Levy, 38, who handles the management and car resales, and Steven Weiner, 39, who helped to finance the business, called CARS. Both are hearing-impaired, and so are all of their employees. Levy said he and his partners like to hire hearing-impaired people because they know that many of them are unemployed. Some are professionals in their craft, and the Employment Development Department sends others to work as trainees.

One such trainee, Michael Turner, 21, said he is happy to be working for deaf bosses. Turner had been looking for work for more than a year, with no luck except for a few odd jobs.

"Many people don't want to take the time to train a deaf worker," he said. "Some people mumble, and you can't see their lips move, but they don't like to repeat themselves."

And he agrees with Johnson that a deaf person has little chance for advancement in the hearing world.

The recession has not been all bad for CARS. Levy said more people are fixing old cars rather than buying new ones. But customers still want the best deal. "That's why we charge lower--to keep the business going."

And business is good, despite strictly word-of-mouth advertising. "People know he's good," said Levy, speaking of Lofrese. "He offers quality craftsmanship."

Lofrese's specialties are older cars and chop tops--cars fashioned into convertibles.

Hearing-impaired entrepreneurs cite one difficulty that has nothing to do with being deaf: finding skilled, reliable help. In fact, for Tri Valley Bookkeeping and Tax Service owner Gary Jacobson, "that is mainly the only difficulty."

"Before, I would have said telephones, but (California Relay Service) changed that," Jacobson said. To use this free service, callers dial an 800 number listed in the phone book, then tell the relay operator the number they are calling. The operator, using the telecommunications device for the deaf, will relay the conversation between the two parties.

Jacobson, 42, credits the relay service for much of his success. After its arrival in 1987, he said, business really took off. "Clients were able to call me through CRS, and I was able to call back." He said secretarial help was difficult to get, "and people usually demand to speak with me, not someone else. So CRS really helped."

In a group situation such as seminars, however, problems arise. The deaf business person faces not only the cost of the seminar but of an interpreter.

Ramy Bustamante III, who runs a mail-order service that markets New Generation products such as Siberian ginseng and American Sign Language products such as books and T-shirts, often encounters this problem. For instance, he recently wanted to attend a Sheriff's Department seminar about internal security for business owners, but felt he could not afford an interpreter. "It frustrated me," he said. Bustamante, 31, said he has missed several good seminars for that reason.

These businessmen, however, enjoy their independence. Bustamante attended Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, but says, "I found the perfect career--entrepreneur--and decided to leave Gally and go west to California."

They are optimistic about the future. Those at CARS believe that quality results at reasonable prices ensure a healthy market. Jacobson had already received 15 new tax clients by Jan. 15, and his old ones keep coming back.

Bustamante is enthusiastic about the future. He has two hearing-impaired workers and wants to hire more. In the fall or winter, he plans to have a research lab where he can create his own products. And down the line, Bustamante would like to form a networking organization for deaf business people.

If there's one thing Bustamante has, it's confidence. "I love to be tai pan, the Chinese word for supreme boss," he said. "I am born to be a leader."

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