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Before Joe Smith became a licensed real estate agent, he spent fifteen years as a certified American Sign Language interpreter. He now uses ASL to help make the real estate business more inclusive for everyone.

Smith’s ties to the deaf community are strong. Both of his parents are deaf, making him CODA. In an interview with me via video conference last month, Smith described his parents as “very capable [and] very smart” people who maintained a “very strong” deaf household when he was growing up. The Maryland native briefly left the state before returning to tell his father he was broke and needed a job. Smith’s dad told him about a friend who owned a translation company and encouraged him to apply. The application went so well that he ended up working as a professional translator for sixteen years, even becoming NIC certified and being “in high demand” for his skill. Furthermore, his ASL skills brought him into the real estate industry.

“I would have my own contracts with various entities,” Smith said of his background working in real estate. “One day the title company called me and asked if I could interpret the settlement. I said, ‘Okay, no problem,’ and he showed up. As I walked in, it’s quite common, especially as an interpreter, to see when you walk in and a deaf person says, “Finally, I can communicate.”

Much of my conversations with Smith centered around our shared bond of being CODA. It is a unique experience; it’s not so much about having deaf parents or knowing sign language, it’s about constantly being between two worlds. As hearing people, we have a privilege and understanding of the world that our parents cannot fathom. By the same token, we are immersed in a world – Deaf culture and Deaf pride is very much a part of the community – that we cannot fully understand because we are not Deaf. The dichotomy is an interesting, often frustrating one, one that defines our lived experiences forever even after we’ve left home and may not be as attached to deafness as in years past. (This has certainly been my reality since graduating high school.) The anecdote Smith told about being an interpreter, whether de facto or official, resonated deeply with me. It’s the quintessential “if you know, you know” scenario.

The friendship between the translator and his client is important in any situation, but especially when the biggest purchase of them all is made in a new home. Obviously, deaf people are also buying homes, but Smith explained that the language barrier was a major obstacle for people to understand the intricacies of the buying process. “I meet people all the time who say, ‘Oh, I can’t tell you, I wish I knew you when I sold or when I bought.’ I’ve had people do that [buy a home] with someone who is not based in ASL or has that skill, and they come. “It’s such a cool moment, because they should be given a little bit of what they’ve always deserved,” 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 I have, they cry at the settlement, they have tears of joy, we hug and cherish the moments we spend together because we know they are not normal in the sense that not everyone can do it again [bond].”

As for Smith, I can anecdotally share that there is a special moment when a deaf person discovers that someone else is literally speaking their language. ASL is a foreign language like any other, but 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 us at CODA.

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 a video conference interview that she was “so grateful” to have worked with Smith in getting her home. Being a homeowner has been a “lifelong dream,” she explained, but she expressed frustration at not being able to communicate with realtors in a very approachable way. It was a breath of fresh air to connect with and feel comfortable with Smith because he knows ASL and context.

When asked about the role of technology in facilitating communication, Smith said the impact of video-oriented software such as FaceTime, Zoom and others cannot be overstated. He said he conducts many meetings virtually, adding that modern technology has given the deaf community access to the hearing world that they have historically struggled to find. Unless it was a primarily deaf event with other deaf people, Smith said those in the deaf community “have never really shared information or been able to communicate.” The advent of the smartphone like the iPhone has really been a boon in this regard. The Marco Polo app, which Smith described to me as essentially signed voicemail, is also an incredibly popular tool. For his part, Smith even embeds quick-shot videos into emails when needed because, he told me, many deaf people don’t understand written English as fluently as they do ASL. “I’m always looking for ways to provide value, support and resources to my clients,” he said.

Jackson echoed Smith’s sentiments about technology’s impact on the deaf community, saying the tools she (and others like her) have today have allowed her to communicate with others in ways that were previously impossible. They make her feel more “included,” she said.

Looking to the future, Smith was quite modest in his views. He wants to keep doing what he does, telling me what drives him are the interactions he has with his clients and the feedback he gets about his work and his empathetic nature.

“I’m just trying to do my part,” Smith said. “When I started, there were very few agents doing what I do: selling high-end homes and providing that service to deaf clients [so] they can get the same service from a good high producing agent that anyone else can. Well, that has changed now, and a lot more of the community is coming into the real estate industry, which is fantastic. In terms of feedback, I’d say it’s been great. In the industry, I think there’s a lot of rejection. But I also see some changes within that rejection. There is 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, based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in places like Tһe Verge, TecһCruncһ, and Macworld. He has also appeared on podcasts, NPR and television.

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By Editor