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December 11, 2003

Deaf-Friendly place to work

From: Richmond News, Canada - Dec 11, 2003

By Michelle Hopkins

A local business owner is barking up the right tree when it comes to her company's inclusive hiring practices.

Her employees, however, may not be able to hear the noise.

Leah Levy owns and operates the deaf-friendly Gulf Island Dog Biscuit Co., a wholesale dog food company in east Richmond.

Company employees Alma Blackburn, 50, and 21-year-old Sharon Lee are both hearing impaired.

That doesn't stop them from producing some top-quality work, a fact Levy was aware of after working with deaf people in the sporting goods industry.

"The quality of their work and their work ethic was so good that I thought if I ever get my own company, I'd hire deaf people to work for me," Levy said.

The respect is mutual in this production company.

As Blackburn and Lee take time off from rolling and cutting the organic, grain-free dough, interpreter Cyndi Marrington translates the women's quick hand gestures.

"I think some employers are reluctant to hire deaf people because they are concerned about how to communicate with us, or they feel they will have to have a full-time interpreter around. That's not the case," Blackburn signed.

"I can do everything here that a hearing person can do."

That's partly because Levy has made the production plant deaf-friendly by making a few minor adjustments.

A couple of large wall boards, explanatory signs and a light bulb which flashes when the oven buzzer goes off, letting Blackburn and Lee know the dog biscuits are baked, are just some of the means Levy uses to communicate.

"I also have a light bulb that flashes when the doorbell rings and a device attached to the phone so Alma and Sharon can answer it," said Levy, adding the cost is minimal for these simple modifications.

Levy hired both Lee and Blackburn through the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Born deaf, Lee said WIDHH staff were instrumental in her securing the job.

Working with an employment counsellor, Lee learned how to create a resum‚ and cover letter, complete job applications and improve her interview skills.

Levy was so impressed, she hired Lee on sight.

Blackburn, meanwhile, who became deaf as a result of contracting German Measles at the age of three, was also hired straight away.

"I respect Leah so much for showing me respect and giving me a chance," Blackburn said.

Levy began her cottage operation two years ago in a quest for a grain-free treat to feed her dog Comet.

After a few trial runs, she produced Sea Treats.

Shortly after the launch, the product line expanded to include five more flavours and Levy was in business.

In the New Year, Levy plans to hire more employees.

And, yes, they will be deaf, she said.

© 2003 Copyright Lower Mainland Publishing Group Inc., A Canwest Company.