Anna Lickley is an inspiration to others as she runs Sense-Ability, a successful business raising deaf awareness and teaching sign language, whilst coping with profound deafness and Neurofibromatosis. She graduated from university with a degree in French. Here I ask her about her business and how she came to be where she is today.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 32 and live in Bristol. I’m deafened, I went deaf when I was about 19/20 and at university. I have an illness called Neurofibromatosis (NF2) which is genetic although mine started by genetic mutation meaning I am the first in my family to have it.
I learned BSL to Level 2 at Sheffield University and now have NVQ 3 and have done linguistics courses and things to learn more and more about it. I communicate in BSL any time I can when other people use it and I also communicate orally using lip-reading if needs be.
What is your current occupation and what have you done previously?
I’m currently running Sense-Ability which is an organisation offering Deaf Awareness, Disability Equality training and British Sign language teaching to businesses and organisations. If I am training, I travel all over the UK. Training sessions are usually one day or half a day, I also offer intensive courses in BSL Levels one and two or just the first unit of BSL Level one and introduction to sign language.
I also spend time working from home on my computer, taking bookings that come in through the website, planning sessions or keeping up with general administration.
I find that generally people are not confident at communicating with deaf and disabled people, the training usually really challenges people to make their communication more accessible. I also get people to think about barriers that they are creating, however unwittingly, through attitudes such as paternalism etc. People often say it has really made them think about changing the way they see disability and deafness.
It’s encouraging when I visit companies who already employ deaf staff and receive feedback from the deaf people that they have really noticed a change after the training: in the way people communicate and in their confidence at approaching deaf people.
I also run week-long residential courses, for individuals to book, in BSL Levels one and two. The venue in West Wales is lovely and though the week is pretty tiring for everyone, we usually have a good week. I think learning BSL intensively helps people to get to grips with it as a language rather then just learning vocabulary with English lip-pattern / word-order which can happen sometimes at Level one.
Previously, I worked at the University of Bristol in a unit that provides support for Deaf and disabled students.
Being self employed, what has been the hardest thing to cope with when you’re deaf?
Self-employment offers less support, for example I used to have a BSL interpreter in the office who interpreted phone calls for me and voiced my signed replies. Now I don’t use the telephone much as calls through TextDirect can be difficult and some people hang up before I get connected as they think it is a cold call. As I work different hours every week depending on when I have bookings, there’s no point trying for an interpreter through Access to Work. I usually explain to clients that email or SMS is the best and almost everybody has an email address so it’s not a great problem. Most people are great at adapting once they get out of automatically thinking of using the phone.
The bane of my job is booking interpreters because I generally can’t take bookings from clients at short notice because I have to allow time to find an interpreter. Finding an interpreter can be time consuming and something extra to think about. I wouldn’t train without an interpreter as I like my sessions to be interactive with the trainees getting involved rather than just me talking. It’s nice to be able to encourage / facilitate discussions.
Has the consultancy / training field adapted well to your hearing loss?
As I’m self employed I don’t have much contact with other training companies apart from those linked with disability type training like the University of Bristol or RNID. People I work with tend to be very clued up and able to adapt their working methods.
Apart from running the business, what do you do? What inspires you?
When I’m not working, I love the outdoors, fresh air and exercise, all of which help to clear my head. I enjoy running and going to the gym. I also love meeting friends for coffee or having people round for dinner or a glass of wine. I am a Christian and very much involved with church, both a hearing church and the deaf church.
How do you cope with networking and the social side of business communications?
If I go to a social event, I prefer to take a BSL interpreter with me as lip-reading groups of people is no fun. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions to using interpreters, first very unsure and talking to the interpreter but I usually explain the role of an interpreter and things improve. Explaining over and over again how to use an interpreter can get tiring but it is generally worth it, although I don’t always do it if I think conversations will be quick one-offs.
I don’t network that way very much, I prefer to approach people on a one-to-one basis, I find it gets better results anyway for this type of business.
What do you think of the online deaf community?
Actually, I’m not really part of it, usually because I spend a lot of time working on my computer. I find the computer can really drain you of energy if you’re not careful and so for socialising or relaxing I prefer to get away from it. Having seen your blog though, perhaps I should get more involved.
What’s been the hardest thing about setting up your own business?
I think being on your own is hard. You have to be responsible for everything so, if your computer breaks, you have to fix it and can’t just call the technicians as you could if you were a larger organisation. You need to do your own finances whereas other places might have their own finance department etc. It’s just needing to be flexible and learning many new things at once.
You can have times when work is very quiet (summer in my case where very few people book training) and times that are very busy when all bookings seem to come at once, both are tricky to deal with.
If you had your time over again, would you change anything?
I think deciding to run Sense-Ability was a good decision. It is sometimes hard and I get tired (linked with my NF2) but it gives me a lot more flexibility with my time. I am sure everyone’s life has ups and downs, good times and tougher times, I don’t think I’d change much.
Perhaps if I could change anything, I would prefer everyone in the UK to know sign language.
What are your aspirations, hopes and dreams in 2008?
That whatever 2008 holds will be a challenge I can meet!
Do you have any tips for other deaf people who want to be self employed?
I spent months deciding if it was the right thing to do but it worked well, you have to be ready to put in plenty of hard work and expect rough patches as well as good times. You must make sure it’s something you love doing.
I did a brilliant, very helpful, course before I started for people considering running their own business. It had information about creating a business plan, keeping accounts / tax issues, marketing, advertising and so on and I would recommend anyone to look around for something similar. There are lots of local support organisations for people setting up in business.
I also initially set up as a partnership with a friend and we later decided to split, to work co-operatively. He is now stepping out and looking for something new but it has been a big help to have someone doing something similar. I think we encouraged each other to take the step and it meant not feeling totally on my own. Perhaps it would be useful to look for someone you can work with / shadow / get advice from.