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Leah Riddell | Ontario | Own Your Story

Entrepreneur l ASL Instructor l Artist

I am Leah Riddell, you will find me signing in American Sign Language (ASL). I am bilingual; I speak and write my parents' language in English and use my natural language, ASL. I am a middle child that was born deaf. My parents were unaware that I was deaf until I was diagnosed at 2.5 years old. For the first two and half years they assumed I was simply stubborn and independent. While that may be true about me, it was mainly because I was Deaf and curious. Sign language was introduced to our family when they had my sister after me who is Deaf also, and it became more important to have access to both languages.

I am a wife of 21 years, and mother to two children, one of whom is a person with Autism. My husband took it upon himself to learn sign language to communicate with me and we sign to our children, so they are bilingual.

I have been a freelance photographer and graphic designer for more than 10 years and then became an ASL instructor for the last 5 years. During that time, I saw a need for businesses, who serve or work with the Deaf, Hard of hearing, DeafBlind, deafened and non-speaking community, to understand that communication is not one way, and it's not always listening and speaking. Communication barriers occur daily for many, especially during the pandemic with masks. SignAble Vi5ion was formed in 2019 and incorporated in August 2021. I used the number 5 instead of the letter S in the word vision intentionally. The way my brain works, I visualize that I'm signing “vision” which uses S and 5 handshapes and incorporates the number in the business name. SignAble Vi5ion Inc. equips business owners to better serve clients facing basic communication challenges and helping to create more inclusive community spaces in the process. Offering online tools to thrive. I am a consultant, inclusive communication trainer, sign language instructor, artist and advocate for inclusion. I strive for "Access for All, Everyone Wins". What were the biggest initial hurdles and how did you overcome them? The biggest hurdle was to be heard. All my life I, and many others, have encountered barriers, misunderstandings and nasty attitudes in the workplace or when dealing with a service. It wasn't until a corporation a few years back made me realize they and society who do not have lived experience as a deaf person are simply ignorant; they assumed Deaf people are incapable of doing anything. That we needed helping hands to the point of pitiness. I emerged from my shell, through my hands using an interpreter and offering captions to get the message across that we were not going to stand being treated the way we are. On a mission to squash the myth that medical, education and law perceives us. I thus turned my anger into an educational opportunity and it has been a humbling and fun experience. I am grateful for the WE CAN Project at Queen's University, a community of women entrepreneurs for their guidance, training and support to help me take it further during covid pandemic times when my in-person opportunities halted. I had access to interpreters and captions every step of the way that many of my peers don't. I was able to pivot my business online. Society sees sign language as a foreign language or a cool language since seeing it more on stage or the news. It's so much more than that! It's a language our community needs, it's our human right and we want people to try to learn it because it benefits them more than they think. I offer awareness about our sign language culture of "deaf gain" and "deaf space" that benefits everyone. I focus on promoting accessibility through inclusive communication training. We do not all communicate the same. I offer the simplest tools that can go a long way to improving customer & employee relationships, boosting sales and creating a more inclusive business. And better yet, they learn basic sign language! Cultivating change, to cultivate inclusion has been rewarding.

What books are you currently reading? I am a slow reader (I can finish books when on holidays at a cottage). Don't Label Me - an amazing book on an incredible conversation for divided times by Irshad Manji. It opens my mind to not be afraid to speak up, to have healthy discussions to understand one another better and to know when to be silent when privileged. The 12 Week Year - valuable insights and practical actions as a business owner by Brian P Morgan and Michael Lennington gifted to me from Cheryl at Key Element Solutions. I wanted to make lasting changes that execute well, and this was the book that helped inspire me to grow. The Sum of Us - eye opening of what racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together by Heather McGhee. Our deaf community is diverse and unfortunately divided, in an already oppressive society that looks down on disability in general because they do NOT understand. The swimming pool example touched me deeply, about how closing a pool to keep the Black community from using it hurts everyone involved. It occurs in every culture of oppression, crab theory is an ongoing occurrence. I'm still processing this book.

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started? Truth is, I struggled with my identity as a deaf person until I turned 40. The big 4-0 and everything became clear for me into my business. To own my story, I had to understand myself before helping others. Lack of belief in myself, confidence in my signing ability and have already struggled with my speech after losing what very little was left of my hearing. I have been occasionally told I'm yelling when I did not intend to. I just do not hear myself raising my voice. Silent sounds in English, more grief for mispronunciations. All the more reason I prefer ASL!! Come on, sign language is 3D and it does not beat around the bush. The Deafhood journey was eye opening and its high time society accepted people as they are instead of cherry picking us into something we are not, speaking and listening robots, to avoid doing the work with us. What advice would you give to an upcoming youth or talents locally and internationally? Own your story, you have lived experience to share and be heard. There is nothing wrong with you! No parents, no doctors, no teachers, not anyone can tell you otherwise. Find a mode of communication that makes you comfortable, society will learn to adapt instead of the other way around. You have the ability to do what you set your mind to do. Keep at it until you succeed. And you will!

Photo Credit:

Emily LaFleur-Brewster Photography


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