Every year after our annual DCBKK conference in October, I jump on a plane somewhere jacked on the energy of 100’s of talented entrepreneurs with the intention of writing my thoughts for TMBA blog readers. Some years, I manage to get something okay posted.
But this year, like most, I got caught up in a million post-conference meetings, masterminds, lunches, dinners and that’s not even to mention all the work we’d gotten behind on. Getting back to the pod, launching a global series of 2019 events (including another large one in Texas in April), and trying to keep our head above water with all the inquires and job opportunities coming through at Dynamite Jobs. Thanks to the team behind the podcast, we did manage to record some reflections on the weekly show.
Many members, though, have been sharing their thoughts about the event, how they experienced it and how it might change their business. One that caught my eye was that of Nabeel Keblawi, who is a professional B2B copywriter.
He mentioned he was looking to make guests posts, and I was fascinated by his experience at DCBKK as a deaf business owner …
So enter Nabeel…
Attending Conferences with a Disability: What it was like to go to DCBKK 2018 as a deaf business owner
Like many in the TMBA community, I’m a location independent business owner who likes to travel and experience different cultures.
But I also happen to be deaf—and have been since I was a baby.
Growing Up as a Deaf Kid
Even though I was fitted with hearing aids at a very young age, I wasn’t fully aware of my own deafness until I was in elementary school.
I knew I was different but didn’t fully grasp how.
Apart from getting support from a few special education teachers with some other deaf kids, I also went to mainstream classes with hearing kids. An interpreter would follow me to all of my lessons and transliterate spoken English into visual cues that I could understand using Cued Speech.
(Side note: Cued Speech is different from sign language. It is a communication tool that visually conveys spoken language to deaf people. This is how I learned English.)
In early elementary school, I had to wear a FM device strapped to my body that helped amplify sounds. It was about the size of an iPhone, but four times as thick.
I won’t lie—I hated the damn thing.
I felt like a robot when well-intentioned adults huddled around me, fussing about the batteries, powering it on, adjusting the volume, and loudly asking “can you hear me now?!”
Plus, it looked ugly.
It was also a perfect excuse for other kids to make fun of me.
And the worst part was, it didn’t even work most of the time!
In fact, having an interpreter was the single most helpful thing that got me through school.
Admittedly, that wasn’t easy to get. But I was very lucky to have smart parents who saw the value of education. They fought the school authorities who eventually provided an interpreter for all my classes, right up to my graduation.
Having a Disability Never Stopped Me
As I got older, I learned that I could do anything except hear.
I played soccer and became a competitive swimmer.
Like most people, I went to college and graduated with a degree.
My first job was in IT. I worked as a contractor for the government in Washington, DC for three years, then I went back to school to get a masters degree. After that, I worked in wind energy for eight years.
Being deaf was a good motivator for me. It gave me something to prove.
A lot of people told me “you can’t do this… you can’t do that… you have a hearing problem.”
But what happens when someone tells you that you “can’t” do something?
It makes you want to do it even more.
“Oh yeah? Watch me.”
Social Life as a Deaf Person
It was—and still is—difficult being social as a deaf person. One of the hardest things about being around hearing people is reading lips.
Here’s a little-known fact:
Only about 30% of English is lip-readable.
If I don’t know the context, I miss a ton. So, half the battle is knowing the proper context so that my brain can “fill in the blanks”.
I do pretty well one-on-one as long as people speak clearly and at a normal speed. With the right context, I can understand almost everything.
Even so, reading lips is mentally taxing. After a full day, my brain gets fried. Then I do it again the next day. And the next.
Sometimes I just need a break, so I’ll skip a social event.
I’ve seen a few people grossly over-exaggerate their lip movements while speaking ultra slowly, thinking it would help me understand them better. But no, that makes it even harder. People who over-enunciate like this only add to good comical fodder with my deaf friends.
Group conversations, though, are the most difficult for me to cope with.
In groups, several people are often talking at once or out of turn.
I can only lipread one person at a time. There is no way I can follow everything in this situation. It’s a physical impossibility.
I also hate being in a group not knowing why everyone’s laughing or what the joke is. To me, feeling left out is the worst part about being deaf.
Sometimes I avoid social situations for that exact reason.
College and After
During and after college I befriended other deaf people and learned American Sign Language, which vastly improved my social life. In fact, deaf people have their own culture with its own beauty, richness, and uniqueness.
With my deaf friends, I could be in a group and fully know what was going on, and even be in on the jokes.
We would exchange funny stories about our experiences, including making fun of the previously described ‘over-enunciators’. We would lean on each other for support when we had problems getting an interpreter. We could vent our frustrations (and boy, sometimes we really needed to vent). We would talk about random stuff.
That being said, I am personally very lucky to have a supportive family, all of whom are hearing. I also have a very understanding group of hearing friends.
My mother and sister sign or cue at our dinners. Other family members or close friends face me and slow down when talking in group conversations. When they sit next to me, they catch me up on what they’re talking about, so I can follow the group conversation better.
My friends have the patience to not sigh in exasperation if I ask them to repeat themselves, sometimes more than once. Some of them even type on their iPhones to show me what they are saying.
Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without the generosity and patience of my hearing friends and family members.
Plus, when I was dating, patience was the most important trait I looked for in a woman. If she ever betrayed the slightest hint of impatience whenever I asked her to repeat herself—even unintentionally—I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.
What Being a Deaf Entrepreneur Is Like
Before I get into what being a deaf entrepreneur is like, let me tell you how I became one.
In 2010, I was a board member of the Houston chapter for the Hearing Loss Association of America. At the time, I organized a comedy show equipped with real-time captioning.
For many deaf people, it was the first time they’d ever attended a comedy show (these shows usually don’t have captions so deaf people can’t follow the jokes). When I created a comedy show flyer, it amazingly sold all tickets out in just a few days.
Because of this, some people suggested that I should consider a career in copywriting.
It took a few years but, in 2015, I finally took the leap into the wonderful yet challenging world of entrepreneurship.
As far as why: I have dreams and a desire for freedom just like most entrepreneurs. I wanted to work for myself while traveling and exploring different destinations.
I’ll say this though:
Entrepreneurship is hard.
There’s no getting around that. It is no doubt even harder for deaf people. For example, it’s not practical for us to “just hop on a call”.
Fortunately for deaf people, technological advances have just begun to level the playing field.
We have video calling with built-in messaging like Skype and Zoom. We have collaboration tools like Basecamp, Slack, and Trello. We have tons of web and mobile apps. Most importantly, people still love using email. Using these tools, it is easier than ever to start an online business.
There are more opportunities for deaf people to become entrepreneurs today than at any other time in history.
I’ve already taken that leap, and many other deaf people are going to follow.
And here’s one advantage: as an entrepreneur, you can make your own rules.
So I can make it ‘a rule’ to just not use the phone. For example, if a potential client insists on talking on the phone instead of using email or Skype, I can just move on and they can find someone else.
Fortunately, this rarely happens.
Out of about 1,000 people I’ve been in touch with in the last three years, there were maybe two people who had an issue with my deafness and not being able to communicate on the phone.
The vast majority had no problem using Skype, Zoom, Slack, or plain ol’ email.
Plus, being deaf myself is a great selling point for other deaf business owners who need a copywriter like me! I have had quite a few deaf clients, some of whom I’m still working with.
Personally, I’ve learned that you have to put yourself out there and meet people to grow as an entrepreneur.
Networking is the single most important thing that helped me grow my business.
But going to a networking event as a deaf person is not easy. They usually take place in noisy lounges or bars, making it hard for even hearing people to listen to others. The low lighting is not helpful for reading lips either. People also coalesce into groups, so I’m forced to cope with group conversations in some of the most difficult places for reading lips.
Despite these challenges, I personally see networking as a necessity to stay in business.
During networking events, I have to conserve energy so I can last through it without getting burned out. I take a lot of breaks between each interaction. If I’m trying to read someone’s lips and just nothing is getting through to my brain, I don’t force it. If I’m tired, then I go home, and try again another day.
Although I used all these strategies for the DCBKK conference in 2018, I also learned another lesson.
A very important one.
Why I Went to DCBKK
So here’s the thing. This wasn’t the first DC event I’ve been to. I’d already been to DCX Saigon six months earlier. (Side note: DCX events are smaller events organised by DC members living in that city).
I went to that with an open mind—until they announced that they would be assigning everyone in groups of 4 or 5 for a ‘Masterminds session’.
When that happened, I had a foreshadowed feeling of dread.
I had never been in a Mastermind before, but I knew it meant one thing:
I could picture it: sitting with other people talking at the same time about complicated business stuff. No interpreter. No context. No idea what each person is saying.
The feeling of being left out slowly crept up on me.
So, I have a confession to make.
I skipped the Masterminds without telling anyone.
And guess what happened afterward?
I regretted it.
I had chickened out. I let fear get the best of me. I didn’t confront it head on.
When I thought about it some more, I realized that there were some things I could have done to make the most out of Masterminds.
Most importantly, I could have asked for help.
So, for DCBKK, I promised myself that I would not only attend the Masterminds, but also ask others for help.
And I did.
Asking for Help
I’ve been to many conferences in my life, mostly through my past jobs. I almost always had a sign language interpreter and a reserved seat in the front, so I could see and understand the speaker better.
Knowing that I’m deaf, the DCBKK hosts reached out to me on their own accord (to my surprise) and generously asked how they could help me.
Although they weren’t able to get an interpreter, they made sure that I always had a seat in the front, so I could read the speaker’s lips. I also asked the hosts to provide the PowerPoint slides in advance of the talks, and they did.
Remember that 30% statistic on lipreading and needing the right context to fill in the blanks?
Reading the PowerPoint slides before each talk helped provide the much-needed context, so I managed to catch about 70% of what was said (as long as the speakers didn’t have some sort of exotic accent). Although I still missed some stuff, I got a lot more out of it than I would otherwise have.
Anyway, back to the Masterminds…
The organizers sent email announcements assigning each attendee to their Mastermind groups. Each group email contained some background information about each member based on what they filled out in their Mastermind applications.
I took the time to sit in my hotel room and study each member in my group before the Mastermind session. I memorized their names. I took notes about their business goals and the problems they wanted to solve. I jotted down what questions I would ask and what suggestions I would give.
This made a huge difference. Doing all that in advance helped me engage with the group while others were in the hot seat.
But when it was my turn to be in the hot seat, I needed a little extra help. So I asked the person sitting next to me to use my laptop, and type the questions others wanted to ask me (and she kindly agreed). While my group was asking questions and giving suggestions, I would look at both the person talking and the laptop screen as she typed what the person was saying.
I’m happy to say that it worked. I didn’t miss much, if at all.
The Main Takeaway
I’ll admit to being one of those stubborn guys who try to do everything themselves, turning down offers of help by saying: “No thanks, I’m fine. Everything’s fine. I can do it myself!” (Sound familiar?)
But if I could share only one piece of advice to anyone with a disability planning to attend a conference, it would be this:
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Plenty of people really want to do whatever they can.
But every person with a disability is different. Something that works for one person may not work for another. As with business and productivity, it’s worth assessing your own strengths and weaknesses, so you can ask for the “right” help.
For a person with disabilities, the ‘right’ help can take many forms—an interpreter, proper seating, creative use of technology, or any kind of accommodation that works best for that particular individual.
This doesn’t just apply to people with disabilities, but also to anyone who needs help with anything. You may not get everything you ask for.
But you’ll never find out if you don’t ask.
Nabeel Keblawi is a professional B2B copywriter who helps companies grow and scale their businesses in technical industries, particularly in SaaS, IT, blockchain, IoT, and energy. He breaks down complex and technical concepts into easily understandable and persuasive language for potential customers.