From picking up dry cleaning to picking up coffee, Melissa “echo” Greenlee spent years struggling with the everyday tasks hearing people take advantage of every day. Some people ignored Greenlee. Others rolled their eyes.
Greenlee, who is deaf, found ordering takeout on the phone especially challenging. Using an automated relay call service, she found restaurant employees would hang up on her — once, twice, three times.
Frustrated with such customer service, Greenlee founded deafReview, a Yelp-like review site for deaf, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing individuals to rate businesses.
“The goal is to make our everyday lives easier,” Greenlee said. “It gets very exhausting every day to have to educate people about how to treat me.”
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Criteria used on deafReview range from whether employees make eye contact and speak clearly, exhibit a positive attitude or know American Sign Language (ASL), to a business’ ability to accept relay calls — an operated telecommunication service primarily for those with speech and sight disabilities.
The website, based in Seattle, has accumulated more than 500 reviews from 150 active users in the past year, barely a dent in the roughly 11 percent of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. deafReview, which started as a pilot site in April 2012 in Seattle, has expanded to six more cities: San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Diego; and New York. Greenlee hopes to extend the site’s reach nationwide.
Greenlee could hear until she was about 8 years old, when her hearing inexplicably and gradually began to decline. She was diagnosed with auditory neuropathy, a rare hearing disorder that impairs the transmission of sound signals from the inner ear to the brain.
By 18, her auditory world became completely indecipherable.
“It didn’t really hit me how different my life was from my peers until middle school,” Greenlee said, “when friends started calling each other on the telephone and I was left out.”
At 19, Greenlee moved to Seattle and socialized with other deaf people for the first time. The change prompted a “rebirth almost,” she said, “hence the need for a new name.”
Greenlee now prefers to be called her self-invented nickname, “echo,” which she said symbolizes her newfound sense of deaf identity.
In 2002, Greenlee founded Visually Speaking, a Seattle program that offers ASL classes to babies and children who can hear.
After encountering denial of services she felt were legally mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she took up a new cause.
She once tried filing a complaint with the federal Department of Justice. She never heard back.
“A significant majority of those complaints don’t get investigated,” Toby Olson, director of staff of the governor’s committee for Disability Issues and Employment said. Olson said complaints filed under the state law with the Human Rights Commission all eventually will be looked into, but the process can take years.
Rather than cope with the wait and uncertainty of more legal measures, Greenlee formed deafReview.
She started it with funds from the sale of Visually Speaking and personal loans. It is completely deaf-owned and operated with 10 part-time, paid employees, and Greenlee aims to maintain at least an 80 percent deaf-operated company in the future.
The entrepreneur said the site’s statistics combat a misconception that the deaf community “is a bunch of complainers.” Based on a five-star scale, 85 percent of the site reviews are positive (four- or five-star ratings) and only 10 percent are negative (one or two stars).
Joshua Jones, a Seattle reviewer who has rated more than 50 businesses, said he noticed some establishments he frequents “became more friendly” and considerate after he reviewed them.
“Businesses are realizing that acknowledging deaf customers means revenue,” Greenlee said.
When a user reviews a business on the site, deafReview employees mail a notification to the business. Recently, the company has generated revenue through banner advertising, sponsored listings and advertorials.
Greenlee praises companies such as Starbucks that provide disability services at certain locations without prompting.
Starbucks offers translators for periodic free taste-test sessions, even though it doesn’t directly profit from the service.
At Greenlee’s local T-Mobile store, some employees encouraged her to text their personal cellphones any time, because they know the challenge a simple phone call can present for Greenlee.
Paramount Theatre offers a range of options for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, including open captions, sign-language interpreters and assisted-hearing devices.
“As a severely hard-of-hearing person,” one reviewer said of the Paramount, “captioning enabled me to ‘hear’ every song that was sung and every word that was being spoken.”
“I just want people to not be so afraid,” Greenlee said of employees of businesses. “I want them to ask me what the best way to communicate with me is.”
Now that “echo” is comfortable with her deaf identity, she just wants everyone else to be, too.
Alysa Hullett: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org