The need met by Christine Sherwood and her daughter, Kathy Kady-Hopkins, at their family-owned company is more than a profitable business niche — it’s life-or-death.
“Say you go into an emergency room as a deaf person — what do you do?” Sherwood said. “If the nurses and doctor can’t triage you because you can’t be communicated with, they need an interpreter, or they can’t do what they have to.
“That’s where we come in.”
ASL Interpreter Referral Service Inc. supports individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf and blind by providing around-the-clock access to sign language interpreters. About 85 percent of the clients paying them to facilitate these interpreter services are hospitals, but the business also serves courts, post offices, schools, businesses and other organizations, as well.
It’s a business the mother-daughter pair started with just a $2,000 investment, working out of their New Brunswick homes. The Somerset-based company has cultivated about 2,000 clients, which they regularly pair with a sizable list of experts — one that now encompasses more than $1 million in annual contracted payroll for the business.
Aside from operating the business as a family unit, Sherwood said her family served as inspiration for the company’s founding.
Sherwood has no hearing impairments, but her brother and sister are deaf, along with nieces and nephews. Her daughter, who is the company’s president, is severely hard of hearing and is married to a deaf man.
“And my mother was also a great advocate for this community,” Sherwood said. “I personally have a lot of experience growing up with deaf people, and so I felt this business was the right thing to do.”
Prior to the business getting its start about two decades ago, there were American Sign Language freelancers in the state, but no business interest tying them together. The only resource out there was the state’s Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Contrary to the business hours that public organization keeps, Sherwood and Kady-Hopkins wanted to have a resource that was available on a 24/7 basis, every day of the year.
A story Sherwood told from a recent incident spoke to the value of that — an anecdote involving a deaf man in a rush to find an interpreter for his wife’s funeral.
“The funeral home director went to the (state agency) but struggled to find anyone on the list they gave her,” Sherwood said. “She told me, ‘I’ve spent four days trying to get an interpreter; I’ve lost sleep over this.’ I said, ‘If you had given this to us four days ago, it would’ve been taken care of that day.’ ”
For their efforts, Sherwood and Kady-Hopkins were awarded the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Persons of the Year award back in the 2008. In the decade since then, Sherwood said a lot has changed for their business.
“What has happened is other people — sometimes interpreters themselves — have decided after seeing our company’s success that they would start their own business doing the same thing,” she said.
At the same time, Sherwood and her daughter have grown closer to the deaf community in New Jersey, and they have all the while been building profiles on deaf individuals that allow them to service that community in the way they prefer.
“Because, in a room full of deaf people, you may have totally different preferred styles of communication,” she said. “ASL isn’t all there is.”
Sherwood talked about her son-in-law, who grew up in an environment in which English put to sign language makes more sense to him than the syntax used in ASL.
So, as an example, “I’m going to the store” comes across better when signed to him than ASL’s shortened “store, I go,” Sherwood explained.
Along with that, Sherwood said the company is uniquely sensitive to the needs of deaf-blind individuals, who require an entirely different, more tactile interpreter.
The family business prides itself on paying attention to these individual needs. And it’s more than a nice mission statement.
“That’s really what sets us apart from competition, too,” she said. “We look at a deaf person as our customer and the person we most need to meet the needs of, even if it’s the client paying for it.”
Reach ASL Interpreter Referral Service Inc. at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-275-7551.