Austin business works to close employment gap for deaf employees, one virtual mailbox at a time

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Austin (KXAN) — Scan Mailboxes, an Austin-based virtual mailbox service, just scanned their millionth piece of mail this month and celebrated five years in business.

They see this as a testament to the value of their mail management service and to the benefits of having a business whose owners and employees are all deaf individuals. 

Here’s how the service works: 

Much of the mail they receive comes from the U.S. Postal Service and customers have to fill out a postal consent form for the mail to be scanned. Once that happens, mail carriers deliver mail daily to the Scan Mailboxes office.

For each piece of mail, the team sorts it, scans it, and uploads an image of it into the system.

The customer then gets a notification on their smartphone or computer that they have received mail. Within 30 minutes, customers can puck that mail up at the Austin office. They can also opt to forward mail, hold it for pick up, deposit checks securely, or have mail shredded and recycled.

Their system is hyper-focused on security, machines read the mail –not human eyes– and security cameras guard both their office and the building it’s housed in (they share the space with a bank). 

“We stay in constant communication with our customers, we use text and email to communicate, we do not use the phone, but we use these other methods to stay in communication with them,” explained co-founder Ken Brown, who said that his business offers live, real-time text response. 

Brown explained that the idea of this business came when he worked in law enforcement and was advised to have his mail sent to a P.O. box for security reasons.

“I used to go to a P.O. box on a daily basis and its how I thought of this as an idea because I didn’t want to do that again,” he said, explaining that he used his co-founder as a guinea pig to see if scanning mail could help people decide what is important faster. 

He estimates that his office receives a thousand or more pieces of mail each day. 

“The numbers astound me,” said co-founder Chris Landry.  The two co-founders managed the business on their own at first, but after two years it grew to the point where they needed more employees to help out. 

Landry, Brown, and their four are all deaf individuals. They also partner with the Texas School for the Deaf and send students each semester to gain work experience at their office. 

“And we are so proud of our team, they have been such hard workers, we enjoy being here,” Brown said. “Communication among each other is so easy because we all use American Sign Language and we’ve created a very deaf-friendly visual space.”

They enjoy communicating with customers too, virtually they use text and email to do so and in person, they have a word processor in their office to talk to customers who come in.

“In fact, we believe many of our customers who sign up — probably the majority have no idea we’re an all-deaf operation,” Landry said. “So when they come in, some of them are really excited and they go home and learn their ABCs for when they come back next time.”

Landry and Brown are also aware that there is an employment gap for deaf individuals in the U.S. They hope that their business model can show others that deaf individuals can not only make great employees, but can help strengthen a business altogether. 

According to the National Deaf Center for Postsecondary Outcomes (which is based in Austin), in 2017 in the U.S. only 53.3% of deaf people were employed, compared to 75.8% of hearing people.

“We want to make sure we give deaf people opportunities so we can close that gap,” Brown said. 

The report also found that employment rates for deaf people did not increase from 2008 to 2017. It also called for more research about why large numbers of deaf people have opted out of the labor force. 

“A great deal of our advocacy work focuses on advancing employment opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing people,” said National Association for the Deaf CEO Howard A. Rosenblum. “As indicated in the National Deaf Center’s report on employment, only 48% of the deaf and hard of hearing community is employed.”

NAD advocates for the civil rights of the 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. 

“Consequently, we appreciate employers such as Scan Mailboxes for their proactive hiring of deaf employees,” Rosenblum added. “Deaf and hard of hearing people have the same desire and drive to work as everyone else.”

Brown said he and Landry started the company with an idea to simplify mail delivery. But hiring deaf employees to add to their business seemed like a natural fit. 

“It’s in our DNA,” Brown said. 

Plus, they said Austin already has a sizable deaf community and many other deaf business owners to be inspired by. 

In 2019, there are more tools than ever before for deaf employees to communicate. With everyone using a smart-phone, there are a host of options the deaf community can use to make the work environment easier. 

But the Smart Mailboxes founders also acknowledge, not everyone wants a virtual mailbox, and some customers are turned off by the fact that they can’t respond to traditional phone calls. 

“We have had a few challenges, we have had a few new customers who want to sign up and really have a tough time with the fact that they can’t speak with someone on the phone,” Brown noted. “We let them know that we use text or email, and some customers at that point say, ‘you know what that’s fine, I’m going to choose not to use your business.'” 

Brown and Landry said they haven’t had trouble finding new customers, they have hardly invested in marketing because most people wind up seeking out their services through a Google search or word of mouth.

“Another reason we are in this business, we expose people to the deaf community and educate them that deaf people can do jobs such as own our own business,” Brown said. 

Brown and Landry said they weren’t nervous to get into the business. 

“The city of Austin has such a huge business community and the culture of entrepreneurship,” Brown said. ” And deaf people are no different than the general population, and we see so many startups here in Ausitn and we knew we could do the same thing.”

Interestingly, the statistics from the National Deaf Center from 2017 show that 4.1% of deaf people in the U.S. own businesses compared to 3.8% of hearing people. 

“The higher incidence of self-employment and business ownership may be an effective strategy to bypass challenges and biases in the workplace that deaf people are deeply familiar with,” the report said. 

Additionally, of the deaf people who do work full time, their median annual earnings are similar to those of hearing people, the National Deaf Center found. 

While it’s now illegal for employers to discriminate based on disabilities, Brown and Landry explained that many in the deaf community still experience discrimination.  

Or, Landry explained, even if deaf individuals are not experiencing discrimination, they may face other setbacks in the workplace. He recalled previous jobs where he struggled to follow along at company-wide meetings, even with an interpreter he would often be last in the room to understand a big announcement or a joke. 

“I’ve worked for other companies, I’ve done a lot of job interviews where I either wasn’t hired or I wasn’t put on the job and I always questioned if the problems I experienced were because I was deaf or if that was just part of the problem,” Brown said. “I just don’t want to create any type of barrier for our employees.”

At their office, they say no one feels like they have a disability. They speak American Sign Language to one another and text and email customers. 

“We’re deaf, don’t let that scare you,” Landry said. “We’re the walking deaf, not the walking dead.” 

As far as Scan Mailboxes goes, they hope to continue expanding and have a greater presence across Texas. 

As far as the message they’re sending, they hope everyone can see that hiring deaf individuals is not just a good thing to do, but a good business practice. 

“We encourage hearing business owners to hire deaf employees, give them an opportunity,” Brown said. 

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard is working on an in-depth report about Scan Mailboxes and about the larger picture of employment for deaf individuals. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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