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January 27, 2006

Company serves a growing need

From: Wisconsin State Journal, WI - Jan 27, 2006

When Jack Barr tells a story, it's impossible to get bored. He tells it with his hands, he tells it with his eyes, he tells it with his whole body.
He may not be able to hear, but it doesn't mean he can't communicate. And it certainly doesn't mean he can't run an expanding business.

When Barr started a text telephone (TTY) business for the deaf and hard of hearing from the basement of his home in 1986, he had, on average, two customers a month. Since then, Barr Productions has expanded and today includes not only TTYs, but also a Deaf Culture Museum and its newest addition, The Sign Language Store, which offers Madison's hearing community the tools to learn sign language. Now, Barr Productions has about 4,000 customers each year.

"Sign language is for everyone," said the store's manager, Kathy Clark, who learned sign language about 10 years ago in order to communicate with a colleague.

About 70 percent of Barr's customers are able to hear or are hard of hearing, while he estimated that about 30 percent are deaf. A growing trend to teach babies sign language before they can speak, has, in part, triggered the store's growth. More parents, Clark said, are realizing that babies who can communicate their needs via sign language are less prone to cry for what they want. The Sign Language Store offers parents more books, videos and tools to teach their youngsters to sign.

"Our goal is to have more babies in Madison signing," she said.

Businesses such as The Sign Language Store will become increasingly important, as the size of the elderly population continues to grow, according to Linda Huffer, director of the state Department of Health and Family Services' Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The store, for example, offers alerting devices that can let deaf or hard of hearing people know if there's a fire in a building. "It can make you sleep better at night," Huffer said.

The Sign Language Store is the only place in Madison where deaf adults can see products in person and receive explanations in sign language, something a Web site or an 800 number can't provide.

"It's one of the places you can go and know that there will always be a deaf person for you to talk to," said Connie Stevens, who runs Shore to Shore, a nonprofit organization in Madison that serves families with deaf or hard of hearing members.

But running and growing the business hasn't always been easy. When Barr, who was born deaf, first started to sell TTYs from his basement, people were reluctant to buy from a deaf person. These communication devices, which "ring" by a flashing light, enable deaf people to communicate via telephone lines, using typed messages.

"People thought it was better to buy from a hearing person and they didn't think a deaf person could run a business," Barr said, with Clark interpreting.

As time went on, however, people realized that other businesses didn't have something Barr, 58, could offer with his whole heart: service. "I take the time to explain deeply, they take the time to learn." Patience is important in his business, he said. "I needed that growing up, and I guess I needed to share that with others."

Barr even drove to people's homes and helped them set up TTY devices they bought from other companies. "So the next time they needed a phone they decided that maybe it would pay to buy it from Jack," he said.

Meanwhile, as his business has grown, so has his Deaf Culture Museum. In the back of his store, Barr has a collection of some of the oldest devices in the country to helping hearing- impaired people, including a 103-year-old TTY, one of the first baby monitors for deaf people, and one of the first doorbells used by deaf people.

Barr plans to continue to expand the store, and he wants to set up a sign language interpreter training program. It would be the first in Madison. He also hopes to add to his museum so that it becomes the biggest deaf culture museum in the nation.

Copyright © 2005 Wisconsin State Journal