Deaf entrepreneurs launch eco-friendly retreat for hearing and non-hearing guests

The new venture will support the deaf economy and expose more hearing people to the deaf community, writes Emily Esfahani Smith

Emily Esfahani Smith
Saturday 11 May 2019 12:14
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A tiny house in the woods at Lost River Vacations, a retreat launched by three deaf business owners, all graduates of Gallaudet University
A tiny house in the woods at Lost River Vacations, a retreat launched by three deaf business owners, all graduates of Gallaudet University

In the summer of 2017, Jane Jonas and her wife were vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina when a massive power outage forced thousands to evacuate the islands. Not ready to return home to Washington DC yet, the couple scoured Airbnb for holiday rentals and found a cabin in the mountains of West Virginia in a town called Lost River. Neither of them had heard of the place before, but they instantly fell in love with its wild, forested landscape – and the solitude.

“It didn’t feel like any place I’d been to before,” says Jonas, who grew up backpacking with her family near their home in northern California. “All the other places where I’d vacationed around here were full of people.” When her wife, Laurie, suggested buying property there, Jonas, an entrepreneur, wondered if there might be a business opportunity.

Now, two years later, Jonas and two friends, Shawn Harrington and Andrew St Cyr, have launched Lost River Vacations, an eco-friendly tiny house retreat on a 22-acre property in Lost River. Two and a half hours away from the district, the retreat is scheduled to open in June.

The three friends are all small businesses owners in the DC area, but what makes their story unique is not that they’re starting a trendy new venture – it’s that their trendy new venture is owned, managed, and supported almost exclusively by the deaf community. Jonas, Harrington, and St Cyr, who met as students at Gallaudet University, are deaf; the tiny house itself was built by deaf carpenters; a deaf-owned company, Catalyst+, will design hiking trails on the property; and the walls of the tiny house will be decorated with artwork by deaf artists.

That’s part of the purpose of Lost River Vacations – to support the deaf economy.

Shawn Harrington, co-owner of Lost River Vacations

“Deaf people and deaf businesses have been marginalised for a long time,” Harrington says Red Bear Brewing Co, where Lost River Vacations launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to expand the retreat. “If you take a deaf business and a hearing business, people typically choose the hearing business,” Harrington says. By encouraging everyone to visit their retreat, the trio hopes that hearing people, who might otherwise be reluctant to hire deaf businesses and individuals, will see the value deaf people can add to a project and be inspired to work with them.

They will open with one tiny house that sleeps four available to rent. But the trio hopes to raise enough capital to build 10 more small abodes, including a tree house and a yurt, in the years ahead. This past week, they raised enough money to build a second house that they hope will be up and running later this summer.

The retreat, previously a hunting ground, is 2 miles away from Lost River State Park. It lies outside the range of mobile-phone service and sits at an elevation of 1,850ft with views of mountains and forests – and no signs of other human inhabitants. (Urban travellers need not fear: “High-speed wifi,” the retreat’s website reads, “makes it easy to post your best pictures to Instagram!”)

More than 500 deaf people gathered for the fundraiser at Red Bear Brewing Co over craft beers, sausages and free cake to support Lost River Vacations. All across the room, people in the crowd – which included government workers, small business owners, and students – were signing to one another while the deaf DJ, Nico DiMarco, blared songs like “No Scrubs” and “All the Single Ladies” loudly enough so that the audience could “feel” the beats and vibrations of the music. (DiMarco’s brother, Nyle, also deaf, was the 2015 winner of the reality show America’s Top Model.)

It was no accident that the event was full of creative talent, says Calvin Young, a filmmaker who created the marketing video for Lost River Vacations, as he interacted with the crowd at the brewery.

“We have something called ‘deaf gain’,” says Young, explaining that when one sense like hearing is missing, that amplifies the others, like taste and sight – meaning that in the deaf community, there are a disproportionate number of cooks, artists and designers. “Hearing people might focus on sound,” Young says, “but when I’m filming, I’ll focus on movement or the facial expression. There is no sound in my videos. I want people to see my film as I see them, through deaf eyes.”

The owners of Lost River Vacations hope to introduce hearing visitors to the gifts of people who are hearing impaired 

Rosemary Latin, the baker of the free cake, was sitting along a wall watching the party unfold. A pastry chef, she founded Rosemary’s Fabulous Cakes in Keedysville, Maryland in 2003. Many of her clients are deaf, but she also has a roster of hearing clients, some of whom didn’t realise she was deaf when they first approached her. “When they found out,” Latin says, “they were a little resistant at first.” They worried about how they’d communicate and work together. But Latin reassured them. She told them that they could communicate via texting rather than calling. “I had to be a bit more assertive,” she says.

Entrepreneurs like Latin, Young and Jonas and her partners are bucking trends in the deaf community. According to an analysis by the National Deaf Centre, which used data from the US Census’s 2014 American Community Survey, the employment rate among the deaf is 48 per cent compared to 72 per cent in the hearing community, and nearly half of all deaf people are not in the labour force compared to a quarter of hearing people.

“The deaf community is starving for entrepreneurs,” says Ryan Maliszewski at Red Bear.

Entrepreneurs (left to right) Andrew St Cyr, Jane Jonas and Shawn Harrington during the fundraiser at Red Bear Brewing Co in Washington DC

Maliszewski directs the Gallaudet Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, which launched in the autumn of 2017. Most students at Gallaudet, he says, major in communication studies, interpretation or social work, and go on to work in deaf-related roles, such as teachers in deaf schools. Though that’s fine, he also wants the students to not be afraid to think big. Being deaf, Maliszewski points out, equips students with a set of characteristics that makes them natural entrepreneurs – like assertiveness and the ability to quickly adapt and be resourceful.

“Our community has some absolutely phenomenal talents, but they do not communicate using sound, so they are unknown,” Jonas says, “so it’s my passion to get their work and talents out there.”

The other, major goal of Lost River Vacations is to expose more hearing people to the deaf community.

52%

of deaf people are unemployed, according to analysis by the National Deaf Centre

The retreat will welcome deaf and hearing people alike, and the three co-founders hope that hearing people who come will leave with a different perspective on deaf individuals. Right now, Harrington explains, many hearing people see deafness as a disability, a term that implies victimhood and helplessness. They don’t understand how deaf people can function in a culture as auditory as ours. “Once when I was at a restaurant,” Harrington says, “a stranger gave me a $20 bill saying ‘I’m so sorry you’re deaf.’ But it’s like, no, I can pay for my own food! But they learn you’re deaf and they think everything is falling apart, that there’s something wrong with you.”

It’s similar with parents, he explains. More than 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and many of these parents believe the only way for their children to succeed is by learning to speak. There is a major schism in the deaf community between people who embrace sign language as their primary method of communication and those who want themselves or their children to assimilate into hearing culture with cochlear implants and speech therapy.

Growing up, Jonas sat in the middle of that schism. She was raised by hearing parents in Berkeley, California. Her mother, a high-school foreign language teacher, understood the critical importance of language to the development of a young child and so learned to sign with Jonas. But Jonas’s parents also sent her to thousands of hours of speech therapy classes. Eventually, they enrolled her in deaf schools. Jonas thrived academically and when the time came to choose a college, she decided to attend Gallaudet. She considered going to a more mainstream school like UC Santa Cruz, where she’d been accepted, but Jonas realised she didn’t want to spend the next four years of her life speaking and learning through an interpreter. She wanted to “figure out how to be a deaf person in the world,” she says.

Jonas, Harrington, and St Cyr want to show deaf children, their parents and the hearing community that it’s possible to be productive and successful while embracing one’s deaf identity.

Seeing Lost River Vacations launch, Maliszewski says, gave him goosebumps. “I want students to hear more of these stories,” he says, “and say, ‘Oh, if they can do it, I can do it, too.’”

© Washington Post

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