A Charlottesville business providing services for the deaf and hard of hearing is mobilizing resources to empower the deaf community and affect societal change.
Civic Access helps businesses and public entities in Central Virginia comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by providing sign language interpreters and captioning services. Its clients include local school divisions, the University of Virginia and Augusta Health.
The company currently employs 35 sign language interpreters.
“We really strive for quality, and word of mouth goes around quickly,” said Kate O’Regan, founder and president of Civic Access.
O’Regan said finding a sign language interpreter can be a complex, impersonal process for deaf people.
“It’s entirely on the deaf person to navigate the system themselves,” she said.
“Civic Access is like a one-stop shop, compared to what happened before,” said community development liaison Susi Wilbur. “It’s seamless.”
The Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing maintains an online directory of interpreters. However, O’Regan said the credentials listed there are not always enough to determine whether an interpreter will be effective in specific situations, such as a university science course.
“If an interpreter is not abreast of the content and language of that environment, they would not be effective ... despite the credentials they hold,” she said.
O’Regan said Civic Access uses its expertise to help hiring entities provide optimal accommodations for deaf people in many kinds of environments.
“Organizations like Civic Access are important for coordinating service at the community level,” said Leslie Prince, interpreter services program manager for the VDDHH.
Prince said the department sometimes uses Civic Access interpreters at state agencies and courts when its own interpreters are unavailable.
O’Regan said it’s important for deaf people to have input in choosing the interpreters they are paired with, especially in a health care setting.
“How do you think it feels when you have no control over who that third person in the room is with you and your doctor? It is not cool,” she said. “We try to be very mindful of the best fit for each person.”
“Effective communication saves money for hospitals and patients,” said Alissa Conover, community advocate for Civic Access.
The company directs revenue from its interpreting services into advocacy and educational programming to benefit the deaf community.
O’Regan, a nationally certified sign language interpreter, previously served as UVa’s coordinator of deaf services. She said she founded Civic Access in 2013 to more publicly advocate for deaf people’s rights and quality of life.
O’Regan said Civic Access is working to establish an independent foundation to pursue its goals. However, she said she has enjoyed working under minimal restrictions as a for-profit social enterprise.
“My business advisers told me: ‘Don’t be afraid to make some money first,’” O’Regan said. “We have been able to run with the concept.”
Conover trains deaf people to better advocate for themselves when seeking access to public resources. Much of her work focuses on deaf adults under the age of 40, who she hopes will join a new generation of deaf leaders
“A lot of deaf people need to learn how to empower themselves,” Conover said. “People all over the state have been so gracious. They are desperate for that knowledge.”
Conover also leads outreach to deaf students in public schools, who can feel isolated from their peers and sometimes lack qualified interpreters.
O’Regan said she hopes that increasing cultural awareness, inclusivity and sign language fluency in the Charlottesville area’s workforce ultimately will reduce the need for her company’s services.
She added that bringing deaf people onto her staff — including Conover and Wilbur — was essential to pursue this goal.
“As a hearing person, I don’t face the same attitudes that deaf people experience every day,” O’Regan said.
“If you decide to hire a deaf individual, that person can provide direct services [to other deaf people],” said Wilbur.
Wilbur said limited access to interpreting services in her previous job as a social worker caused her to miss out on valuable professional development opportunities.
“I never felt that I was living up to my full potential,” she said. “That’s why Civic Access is here — to provide that advocacy.”