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Prior to Joe Smith’s turn as a certified real estate agent, he spent fifteen years as a certified American Sign Language interpreter. Now he’s using ASL to help make the realty business more inclusive to everyone.
Smith’s ties to the Deaf community are strong. Both of his parents are Deaf, making him a CODA. In an interview with me via videoconference last month, Smith described his parents as “very capable [and] very smart” people who maintained a “very strong” Deaf household as he grew up. The Maryland native took a brief interregnum out of state before returning and telling his dad he’s broke and needed work. Smith’s dad told him of a friend who had an interpreting company and encouraged him to apply. The application went so well he ended up working as a professional interpreter for sixteen years, even becoming NIC certified and being “very in demand” for his skill. What’s more, it was his ASL skills that got him into the real estate industry.
“I would have my own contracts with various entities,” Smith said of his origins of working in real estate. “One day, a title company reached out and asked if I could interpret a settlement. I said, ’Okay, no problem’ and showed up. As I walked in, it’s a pretty commonplace occurrence, especially as an interpreter, to see when you walk in and the Deaf person is like, ‘Finally, I can, communicate.’”
Much of my discussion with Smith centered on our shared bond of being CODAs. It’s a unique experience; it isn’t so much having deaf parents or knowing sign language, but rather the constant straddling between two worlds. As hearing people, we have privilege and an understanding of the world our parents can’t fathom. By the same token, we’re immersed in a world—deaf culture and deaf pride is very much a part of the community—we can’t fully comprehend because we’re not deaf. The dichotomy is an interesting, oftentimes frustrating, one that defines our lived experiences forever even after separating from home and perhaps not being as tied to deafness as in years past. (This certainly has been my reality since graduating high school.) The anecdote Smith shared about being an interpreter, whether de-facto or official, resonated with me deeply. It’s a quintessential “if you know, you know” type of scenario.
The camaraderie between the interpreter and their client is important in any situation, but especially when making the biggest purchase of them all in a new home. Deaf people obviously buy houses too, but Smith explained the language barrier has been a major hinderance in people actually understanding the intricacies of the buying process. “I meet people all the time I’m who are like, ‘Oh, I can’t tell you, I wish I knew you when I when I sold or when I bought.’ I’ve had people who have done done it [buy a home] with someone who is not ASL-based or has that skill set, and they come. It’s such a cool moment, because get to give them a little bit what they’ve always kind of deserved in the first place,” he said. “People always wonder why it’s so different, but it is. It’s more personal. I guess it’s hard to explain. But the clients that I have, they cry at settlement, they have tears of joy, we hug and we appreciate the moments that we spend together because we know that they’re not normal in the sense of not everybody can recreate that [bond].”
To Smith’s point, I can anecdotally share there is a special moment when a deaf person finds out someone else literally speaks their language. ASL is a foreign language like any other, yet somehow the aforementioned roots in culture and pride play a big role in finding someone else who “gets” you. It’s a special relationship, including for us CODAs.
For April Jackson, her experiences with Smith in buying her home mirror what she shared with me. Jackson, a Deaf interpreter and actress with two Deaf children, told me in an interview via videoconference she is “so thankful” to have worked with Smith in procuring her home. Being a homeowner had been a “lifelong dream,” she explained, but expressed frustration at not being able to communicate with realtors very accessibly. It was a breath of fresh air to connect with Smith and feel comfortable with him because he knows ASL and the context.
When asked about technology’s role in facilitating communication, Smith said the impact of video-oriented software like FaceTime, Zoom, and others cannot be overstated. He said he conducts many meetings virtually, adding modern technology has given the deaf community access to the hearing world they historically have struggled to find. Unless it was at a primarily deaf event with other deaf people, Smith said those in the deaf community “really didn’t ever share information or be able to interact.” The advent of the smartphone like the iPhone has truly been a boon in this regard. The Marco Polo app, which Smith described to me as essentially signed voicemails, is also an incredibly popular tool. For his part, Smith even embeds quick-take videos into emails when necessary because, he told me, many deaf people don’t comprehend written English as fluently as in ASL. “I’m always looking for ways to provide value and support and resource to my clients,” he said.
Jackson seconded Smith’s sentiments on technology’s influence on the Deaf community, saying the tools available to her (and others like her) today have allowed her to interact with others in ways that were heretofore impossible. They makes her feel “more included,” she said.
Looking towards the future, Smith was rather modest in his outlook. He wants to keep doing what he’s doing, telling me what help drive him is the interactions he has with his clients and the feedback he receives on his work and his empathetic nature.
“I’m just trying to do my part,” Smith said. “When I started, there were very few agents that do what I do: sell houses at a high level and provide that service to Deaf clients [so] they can get equal service from a high-producing good agent that anyone else can have. Well, now that has changed, and a lot more of the community is coming into the real estate industry, which is fantastic. So feedback-wise, I would say that it’s been great. In the industry, I think there’s a lot of pushback. But I’m also seeing some change within that pushback. There’s that battle that still exists, but I think things are slowly getting better.”
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Steven is a freelance tech journalist covering accessibility and assistive technologies, and is based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in such places as The Verge, TechCrunch, and Macworld. He’s also appeared on podcasts, NPR, and television.
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