by Suzanne Labry
Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Meredith McCrane is a hearing mother of two deaf children. When her kids became teenagers and started looking for after-school or summer work, she was frustrated by the fact that employers would not hire them because of their deafness.
“It was a real wakeup call for me when I realized there were no jobs for my son and daughter the way there were for other kids their age,” she says. “I told myself that if I ever decided to start my own business, I’d make sure that there are no barriers to employment because of communication issues that can limit deaf job seekers.”
McCrane, who had a successful career as a manufacturers’ representative in Ohio, put that idea on the back burner. But one day at her son’s soccer game, she started talking with another mom who had made a quilt out of her child’s old T-shirts.
“I had never sewn a day in my life, but I knew my son would love a quilt like that, so I made one for him for his birthday. When he opened it up and I saw his reaction to it, I thought to myself, ‘This is it! This is the business that I can start.’ My goal was to identify a venture that was hands-on, visually oriented, and that lent itself to a beginning-to-end process. Making T-shirt quilts fulfilled all those goals.”
That was 16 years ago. Today, Keepsake Theme Quilts (KTQ) has 24 full time employees, all of whom are deaf.
The Columbus, Ohio-based company is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation whose social mission is “To hire, train and promote deaf individuals in a productive work environment free from communication barriers, where they produce unique, quality T-shirt quilts which exceed the customer’s expectations."
In addition to the full time employees, KTQ has also implemented a Work Experience Model (WEM) to train high school students. Using a grant from the Columbus Foundation, KTQ is able to hire deaf teens to give them work experience.
During a specified period of time, the students create tote bags from start to finish, and learn about each step along the way, earning money as they go. Some of them eventually transition to full time work with the company.
All employees work in a small manufacturing and sales business environment where they participate in product development, gain experience with inventory control, operation of tools and equipment, data entry/computer skills, and customer relations.
“KTQ is unique in that every employee is fluent in the use of sign language,” McCrane says. “Deaf people are visual learners and our work environment includes large open rooms, which are essential when using a visual language to communicate. We also use assistive technology, such as video relay services and video phones, to help facilitate communication between those who can hear and those who can’t.”
But make no mistake as to what this effort really is – and what it isn’t.
“This is not a shelter workshop,” McCrane emphasizes. “Our staff is motivated, creative, team-oriented, and committed to quality workmanship. If a worker does not have those attributes, then he or she will not be happy here because our customers expect a good product and we work hard to give make sure they get it. We give back to the community in so many ways, from keeping three longarm quilters in business to paying taxes, to purchasing materials from other local businesses, to employing people who might otherwise have a hard time finding work.”
With a motto of “You make the memories, we make the quilt!” the company offers three levels of product: 1) the “premium” quilt, with sashing between the T-shirt or sweatshirt squares, an embroidered message, machine quilting, and many custom details; 2) the “quality” quilt, with a border but no sashing between T-shirt or sweatshirt squares, and machine quilting; and 3) the “value” quilt, with just T-shirt or sweatshirt squares hand-tacked onto a fleece backing with no batting.
When KTQ first started, they had very little competition. That has changed, but McCrane says that what sets their product apart from the rest is their reputation for quality and their excellent customer service.
“It all comes down to communication,” she says. “And we know how to do that!”