Access starts at the dinner table

Access starts at the dinner table

In conversation with Convo

Moments of connection and a whole lot of nuanced jokes are shared around a dinner table. It can be the heart of human connection. Yet, for many Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, these moments often remain out of reach.

Convo is here to change this and is going global with a mission for every Deaf and hard-of-hearing person to have access to an interpreter in their pocket. We caught up with Wayne Betts, Co-Founder and Chief Vision Officer, alongside Ravi Vasavan, Global Creative Director, to delve into the details of their communication revolution.

By Kate Bensen

3 Mar 2024

Wayne Betts and Ravi Vasavan Today interview

Wayne Betts and Ravi Vasavan

Wayne Betts, Co-Founder of Convo and Chief Vision Officer
Ravi Vasavan, Global Creative Director
Kate Bensen, Storyteller at Today

Stephanie Gardner
Ralph Blank

When somebody asks you what you do, how do you explain it?

Wayne: If a Deaf person asks me that I will ask them, what is the experience that is lacking right now? I mean, there are interpreting services available, but there are spaces where it doesn't exist. Convo—on a daily basis—drives to fill those gaps and not accept the status quo with the way things are run. We look to innovate, to figure out how to repurpose resources so that we can activate and enable those moments and those experiences.

Now, if it's a person who doesn't have any background or experience in what we do, and they ask me about that? I frame it in terms of those missed moments, regardless of size, for example, dinner table conversations. Take a Deaf child with hearing parents for example, how do they have those relationship-building opportunities over dinner?

How do we figure out how to bring in a solution, whether it's in a storefront, or a critical job interview? Convo is about activating those moments.

Well, I say it's balancing and representing two different sides, one side being no known experience of the Deaf world and Deaf culture, an individual who doesn't know any of that. And then you have Deaf individuals. It's all about balancing.

To add to your point, sometimes people who don't know still don't get it. And that's when I bring a more direct example to them. Asking them, do they know about interpreting services? Maybe they've seen an interpreter on television. What happens when the television is no longer available or you leave the room and there's no interpreter available?

That's when Convo steps into the picture. That’s how I frame it.

How does Convo work and how is it evolving interpreting services?

Wayne: I have a lot of colleagues who are very proficient and excel in what they do. But we work within an industry of interpreters. Video relay service in America was a brand new thing at one point and for Deaf people for Deaf individuals, it was the tool that we wanted to have.

We were able to identify who I was, and who had the power, which was the Deaf user, to be able to fit my needs. A lot of other service models actually do the opposite. The service models are more satisfactory to those who are paying for the service, such as a store, a hospital, a big institution or a big entity. Now, when a Deaf person comes into their establishment, what are they supposed to do? It's a wonderful thing, they're trying to provide a solution, and it's not bad at all. But there are limitations within those service models.

So I got together with a group of friends and said, what would we do differently if we could set this up? What would it look like? That was the question that was asked.

Why don't we do it this way? Why isn't it happening in this manner? And we realised, you know what? Let's give it a try. Let's make a difference.

So we started with the basics. We started with good quality service coordination with interpreters. We were partners, we were innovative with our interpreters, understanding what they needed. So we started with the basics and we built our reputation and our credibility throughout the years. We're going on 15 years of Convo with the same foundation, the same philosophy, just a bigger vision at this point. So, that's how Convo started.

How has it changed communication and relationships in your own day?

Wayne: Well, I can't speak for every Deaf individual in the world because I come from a Deaf family. I'm second-generation Deaf. My parents come from a hearing family and their experience, my parent's experience, was completely different from mine. I would say I was very fortunate to have my first language as sign language. That wasn't normal for my parents. So my world, I would say, was very much in a bubble. I felt very safe. I was able to communicate with my family.

But once I stepped outside my bubble, I had different exposure. And so I had to learn how to communicate through an interpreter. And let's say an interpreter wasn't available, that meant I had to find other means to communicate.

So my journey has always been where services were available. I would go to a region where there was a large population of Deaf individuals. That's where you'll find Deaf people. I don't see myself living in an area where there's no Deaf school, for example. It's really hard to imagine, for me personally.

The story that I just outlined has been most of my life. It wasn't until later in life, I would say roughly my twenties, is when this concept of video relay service was started. It was online, I could get an interpreter and I could see the interpreter and I could make phone calls. That was a brand new concept because, prior to that, it wasn't available to us. We actually had to go to an organisation or an agency that supported that communication manner.

It was very impactful because I was able to call literally anybody in the world and have a conversation in my native language. So it empowered me to have the conversations when I needed it from start to end.

I would say Video Relay Service has helped me engage more with hearing individuals. I've learned a trade, and I've worked in different industries. That wasn't true prior to Video Relay Service. You'd have to have a formal meeting set up and you'd sit down with people in the room with an interpreter for an hour. It was too formal in my opinion. And that's the early years of Video Relay Service.

Nowadays, our current trend is we're looking for ways on how we're not limited to just phone calls. And that's what we're exploring. Australia has a great governmental program. I mean, far different than what the world has to offer. With the NDIS, they allocate a budget to a Deaf individual, and the Deaf individual decides how to spend the money. It could be in-person events, it could be telephone related, that is mind-blowing. Because in America and other countries, there are no programs like that. So it's given us a way to think about how we can take that concept, borrow it, and make it work in the United States. So we've done a lot of trials because we wanted to figure out who's going to pay for this. Are businesses going to pay for this? Are employers going to pay for this? And what we found is the answer is yes.

We have a lot of subscribers and users who are utilising the interpreter in your pocket idea anytime, anywhere. So you're not limited to just phone calls now. I have literally seen stories of people using the platform during the family holiday dinner. We're talking about an individual in their forties, who for their entire life is used to not being able to communicate with their family, sitting at the dinner table, having very basic conversations. Until now, with this new platform, it's just mind-blowing because they're now seeing the conversation, the gossip that's happening at the dinner table.

That was not possible before.

So for me, it's very impactful. I found myself more curious and I've decided to go outside my bubble with the current solution that we offer.

Ravi: My story is very similar to Wayne's. I have Deaf parents and I was fortunate to have access to sign language communication from day one, family, friends, all had access to that.

I got older, ready to attend university and seek employment. I loved design work. I loved to work on my computer and the Internet. But once I got outside of that space, where was I going to go and be able to use sign language? We didn't have services such as what we have now. There were some services, but nothing like we have today.

And you know, three years ago the services were just established in Australia. It's still very new. So the impact has been tremendous. I’ve found myself more assertive, I can go into situations where I find that I can contribute, or if I were curious to participate in a conversation, I now feel at liberty to do so.

I also want to add, typically Deaf people would move or locate to where they know there are plenty of resources and Deaf community members. That's what my father and mother did. They moved from rural Western Australia to Melbourne for that very reason, there was a school for the Deaf located here.

And that's not a unique experience. Many Deaf parents or parents of Deaf children have to relocate to where resources are available because they didn't have access where they were living originally. And so, my hope is that as we continue to roll this out in the future, it will mean that people won't have to relocate to other countries or other states because they'll have access. That's one of the things that I'm really looking forward to.

I'd love for you to share a little bit about your decision-making framework at Convo.

Wayne: Convo has gone through a journey of evolution. In the past, we started by looking at what the industry standard was and the decisions that were made. Originally, video interpreting was over a computer or a mobile device, so technology is part of what we do. And there were standard practices that were established that took a very waterfall approach in terms of development, version 1. 0, 2.0, 3.0. It required a lot of work, a lot of planning, a lot of guesses as to what features we needed to add just to be able to compete in this space.

It was also a source of frustration. It wasn't flexible enough. Life changes fast. It's fluid. So why are we building according to the auspices of a very rigid model? Because that isn't how life happens. Just some examples. When you look at technology for the Deaf and hard of hearing in general, there were TTYs, hearing aids, and captioning, and contrast that with the acceleration of technology and its evolution. The technology that we have, accessibility technology, is so antiquated. In contrast, you put out something and in a couple, three years, it's obsolete and we are stuck with it.

So, how are these strategic decisions made where people say, you know what, that's good enough, let's leave it there. And so in our journey over the years, we've transitioned towards becoming more agile. Let's plan things for now, next, and later. So that's kind of the framework that we've adopted. Let's not worry about timelines, and let our learnings impact our decisions quickly, more immediately, and keep it close to us. So that's the practice and the model that we've adopted.

We're looking more at our platform and how to be able to fix components rather than redo the whole thing so that we can respond more quickly to actual use cases that are occurring.

Ravi: And to add to that from a branding perspective and to give a more holistic view on things, I started with a company called Patagonia. They had a really good tagline or slogan, and it was ‘earth is our only shareholder.’ I mean, that is really valid. Any decisions that are being made, make sure you're not harming our earth. I saw that statement and I thought, that is absolutely beautiful. And I can see how we can apply that to our philosophy at Convo. Of course, there's some personal gain here for us as we go through this journey, but any decision that we make will never be harmful to the Deaf community as we are members ourselves.

Recently becoming an agile business means we can actually follow our philosophy a lot easier. If we had that waterfall strategy, it would be extremely difficult to be able to maintain and keep up with current trends. But with that philosophy and with our new everyday work process and operations, it means that we can continuously be on top of our game.

If a person was to ask, ‘why don't we do things this way?’ We'll question ourselves. Can we do it this way tomorrow? Can we make sure that this is implemented in a way that is faster and more beneficial? Not something where we want to come back and say, let's put this on hold for a year because, in a year, we're harming the opportunities that are afforded to us now.

Like Wayne said, life moves so quickly, things are accelerating, and for us to be able to obtain anything, we also have to be agile.

Wayne: Right, he's got it right on the spot. The unfortunate part here is that the industry norm for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community is when it comes to interpreting services, the person who pays is the key stakeholder. So everything is done for them. They're at the centre of it all. They're the ones paying, so they're the most important part of this. But actually, the reason you're even paying for this is because of me, the Deaf person. Without me, this wouldn't even exist. So the standard model isn't a good fit.

So we come from the focus of the Deaf individual and the people around them, the businesses with whom they interact, their workplace. Those are also important. So this is how we prioritise the core of what's important to us.

Why do you do what you do? Can you, can you share that fire inside that drives you, drives you to do this work?

Ravi: Coming from a designer background, I've been in the design game for 15 years. I have worked on global and local branding, products, strategy and more. I would say I thought life was fine, status quo, work was work, you know. In that role, I wanted to make sure that I was fulfilling needs and I was thinking like them, and I'm using the term them, right, for 15 years, which is a really long time.

Over time, as you get older, you get wiser, and you realise that there's more to life than just this. Why am I investing in them and I'm not being invested in? Why not invest in myself and my people, right? So that’s kind of what drove me to leave the industry that I was in and explore opportunities where I can actually contribute, make impact, make a difference. Quickly, mind you. Not something that you have to wait years to be able to be impactful.

One of my decisions in leaving the design industry was to look for opportunities such as this. I had a network, we had mutual friends—the Deaf world I will say is extremely small. And so I was always aware that there was a potential partnership. I started a year ago and I don't want to ever look back. This has been extremely impactful. This is a sweet spot for me because that drive, that fire that you speak of, I get up every morning ready to be challenged, ready to challenge the world. So that's what drives me.

I started a year ago and I don't want to ever look back. This has been extremely impactful. This is a sweet spot for me because that drive, that fire that you speak of, I get up every morning ready to be challenged, ready to challenge the world. So that's what drives me.

Ravi Vasavan
Wayne Betts Convo

Wayne: Yeah. I can say a lot is very similar to what he does as far as what gets me up every day. But looking back as to why, way back when I got started with this. I don't really feel that I had a choice. It was very much a part of my life, basically from day one. Being born Deaf, this was a given.

Let me give you some context. This is my first ever family photo. My mum's holding me, Deaf mother. My dad, he's there leaning in, Deaf, and I asked my parents, who's this lady in the middle looking over us? My mother said, “Oh, well, that was the interpreter who was there interpreting for your delivery.”

I mean, this very, very special moment and an interpreter was part of that. So that's the story of my life, and it's true for many other Deaf people as well. From the moment I was born, an interpreter was part of it. And having the interpreter made such a difference.

I did get off into the direction of filmmaking. That's why Ravi and I connect so well, we're both creatives. I never once dreamed of establishing a business such as Convo, it certainly wasn't in my life plan. But it was through the experiences I and my parents navigated. I always found myself perplexed having to get interpreters arranged, and frequently scheduled for hospital visits, medical appointments and more. I was always perplexed about the process. The interpreters and I agreed that the way that this was coordinated, paid, arranged, and all of it was just clunky.

The interpreter and I often wonder, well, who decides this? Who decides this? I know what works for me, the interpreter knows what works, but we're not part of that decision. It's the people in the middle who are creating a mess and it’s complicated.

And so my journey has been about thinking about why it is designed the way it is? And why is it when barriers come up? It's because, well, that's just not the way it goes. And so I wanted to work closer to those who are providing this, but repurposing the resources, evolving it so that it feels that it's something where interpreters find it sustainable.

My own children, I have one who can hear—CODA we refer to them—and another child that's Deaf, and so it gets deeper for me, personally, because when I leave this planet, I want to make sure that the next generation and future generations will experience that it's gotten better rather than simply repeating the same old story.

I can't allow that to happen. So that's the fire that continues to drive me.

You might already be doing it, but what is your dream opportunity for creating positive impact in the world?

Ravi: I was gonna say, it's what I'm doing right now. It's exactly what you just said. The first steps, the early steps, have been impactful since day one. Being here for a year, I can't even anticipate what it's gonna look like in 15 years, you know, Wayne's been here for 15 years. For him to look back on day one to now!

People like you, Kate, who are asking the right questions, you're going to leave this meeting, and you're going to ponder on this, and information, whether it's through the article, a conversation you may have with family and friends, this is important, it’s a learning experience for for everybody. And so my point is, I am doing this. It's in progress.

Wayne: To add to Ravi's comments, there's a sense of urgency that I experience. It's more important now than ever. In the past I was like, oh, we just need to implement a technology platform, we just need to figure out how to scale it. But actually, we need to instil a sense of urgency overall.

Rather than simply saying, well, I'm sorry, you can't have a conversation around the family dinner table because technology is limited, there aren't enough interpreter resources, and who's going to pay for it?

I don't want to give myself excuses for why that can't happen. Instead, I need to make it urgent. How do we do this tomorrow, knowing that it won't be perfect, but not continue to delay our planning? How do we do it?

What is happening right now in Convo is we are promoting a sense of urgency and hoping to let that sense of urgency expand outside.

Ravi: Exactly. I think where Wayne says that we're not just a company, I think that is the most crucial part to remember. Because we can do this internally, but there's only so much that we as a company can do.

So we definitely need people externally to buy in, buy into this philosophy and agree that there is a sense of urgency. That needs to happen. Absolutely.

My own children, I have one who can hear—CODA we refer to them—and another child that's Deaf, and so it gets deeper for me, personally, because when I leave this planet, I want to make sure that the next generation and future generations will experience that it's gotten better rather than simply repeating the same old story.I can't allow that to happen. So that's the fire that continues to drive me.

Wayne Betts

I think it's interesting thinking about that sense of urgency and the societal change that needs to happen for people who are hearing to think about this more holistically, and not as something that they don't think about all the time. To actually consider the experience of everyone.

I'm interested to hear what you both think needs to change for that to happen. What do you think motivates people to make that change?

Wayne: If you asked me 10 years ago, I would say convincing them to pay. I will admit that that is not the issue. I was very wrong. I wake up on the daily with just even the smallest sales pitch and people are like, absolutely, I'll pay for this.

And that's a fair question to justify the cost. It makes sense because everyone is broke, right? Everyone would be bankrupt if it didn't make sense.

So the challenge wasn't, who's going to pay for this? It was the industry model. That is the biggest issue. How we package things, how we charge for things, how we frame our cancellation policy, the minimum hours of two hours of scheduling an interpreter. Like really? Is that necessary? You're boxing us Deaf individuals into a two-hour conversation. That's all we can have. You know, otherwise, it's “Well, I'm sorry you have to pay the full price. I'm sorry. That's just how the business model works.” That's the biggest problem.

So with a sense of urgency, they really need to take a look within themselves and their companies and really evaluate that. There are no laws about this. This is all strictly based on business needs, right? The business decides this.

We have people willing to pay if it's affordable, makes sense, if it's available. We've proven that it is possible. So that's how I would frame it.

Ravi: Yeah, I concur. When you think about this, again, generating impact and what that means, is for as many Deaf people as possible to have access to this.

Our hope is that all Deaf people in the world, everyone who signs or whatever their communication modality is, whether they rely on sign language or captioning, that they would have access to this at no cost to them. I mean, that's my greatest desire. My number one wish. But if not that, at least as inexpensive as possible without compromising on questions of quality, but to be able to bring down the economy, the economic impact of that, so that they have access to it.

Currently, the current industry model doesn't allow that to happen. It is too expensive, far too costly for businesses to be able to consider hiring an interpreter for, say, a four-hour conference when they look at the cost and all that for one Deaf individual who may attend, they can't justify the expense to the business. And that is the wrong way to frame it, and harms the Deaf individual.

It goes back to the original point. If your decision harms a Deaf individual or the decision we make is harmful to the Deaf individual, then it's something that needs to be re-evaluated. We need to revisit and ascertain what's wrong with it, and see what needs to be taken out or added to the equation so that it can be provided.

And that is what's happening today.

Wayne: I'll add too that this is all from a Deaf person's point of view, from the service point of view. But if you take a look at the industry and how they're doing, they're doing great, it's a thriving industry. I had a CEO of a very prominent company saying, “This is not a billion-dollar industry. This is a trillion-dollar industry.” Excuse my language, what the fuck? Trillion-dollar industry? We are expensive in theory, right? The access experience that we receive is minimal. We just grab every opportunity we can, but then I see people bragging about the industry and how it's thriving, but where are the services, right?

So that's the other side of the other coin.

It's hard to hear it being talked about as an industry when it's actually about people, and experience, and living, you know. That's how I see you framing it at Convo, which is pretty great.

Wayne: And that just reiterates that Deaf people are stakeholders. We put them in the centre and if people start to do that, it would change everything.

Ravi: And again in some industries, you can get away with operating business that way, where you don't need to work with a specific type of people, whether it's Deaf, or other disability groups, it isn't necessary to them and they can operate just fine.

But in our industry, if it weren't for Deaf people, if it weren't for sign language, what would even happen? So it really is a mutual relationship that needs to be fostered. There's an exchange that needs to occur. There needs to be greater transparency. It's very bi-directional, and that needs to be fostered.

Deaf people are stakeholders. We put them in the centre and if people start to do that, it would change everything.

Wayne Betts

Thank you so much. Is there anything else that either of you would like to share before we finish today?

Wayne: If someone were to ask, why are we going global? I mean, we're an American based company going global. What is our objective in doing so?

Growing up, my parents have always instilled this in me a desire to learn, but remain humble, open minded, open heart.

And that's true for Convo. Our story, yes, starts in America, but we're now at the point where we have felt that we have plateaued here. To accomplish our vision, to limit it to America, is very finite, and that's a very difficult place to be. We have lots of wonderful people that are stuck, they can't evolve. So we decided to look at the world at large and see what's possible, and begin to share stories.

What I've learned through my travels to Australia, the UK, and other countries is that our story really is universal when it comes to the Deaf individual life experiences, issues with access and communication, it's universal. We share that experience in common. With the additional layer of multiple cultures, governments, beliefs, values, which run the gamut. So Convo began to think about how do we continue to promote this type of exchange, so that the best of Australia and America can be borrowed, to build out a solution of a quality and experience that meets everyone's needs.

Ravi: It's a very good point. And you can see that it's evident based on my story, being born in Western Australia and Wayne, you were born in Massachusetts. It's a global story, right? Our stories are very similar. And the generational gap, you mentioned you’re second generation, but it's the same story.

And why is that the case?

Change needs to happen. And what this means is that we need to start to look globally in other countries. What are they experiencing? One person could be extremely impactful if they ask the right questions or, you know, take a look at their journey and realise that we didn't think of this, right? There are different privileges in different parts of the world. So it's extremely important that we do go global and in doing so, we're able to, you know, get Convo to think more of what we can do tomorrow for a global experience.

Thank you for sharing. I've really enjoyed chatting with you both

Today Team Kate

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