A chance encounter with a mother struggling to take out life insurance for her deaf daughter sparked a business idea in a call centre agent back in 2007.
About 16 years later, the fully-fledged idea is making life much more bearable for people living with disabilities.
The compassionate call centre agent was Claybourne Appies, the founder of DeafTouch.
Founded in 2018, DeafTouch is a video-based digital call centre platform that promotes digital inclusion for people with disabilities. The platform allows effective communication between the deaf and people with visual disabilities, businesses, governments and the general public.
Speaking to Vuk’uzenzele, Appies said: “One day I received a call from a mom who wanted to take out insurance for her daughter. We were the eighth insurance she had called at the time because no one wanted to insure her deaf daughter as a policyholder. The challenge was the communication between the insurance company and the daughter.”
In a normal situation, he said, signing up for a new policy would take him about 20 minutes, but this specific scenario took him five days to complete due to the language barrier.
Taken aback by this reality, Appies identified a need for an improved communication platform that would allow the deaf community to gain access to more services.
“Effectively, if they can gain access, they can also live their lives to the fullest extent possible, much like you and I.” Appies said DeafTouch’s core focus was promoting accessibility of services to people living with disabilities.
“It differs from disability to disability. For someone who is deaf, we need to ensure that sign language is available, whereas we kind of need to be the eyes for someone who is blind. For a person who has physical disability, we need to ensure that they have mobility,” he explained.
While the start-up’s current focus was on deafness, it is driving towards an overall emphasis on all types of disabilities. In this regard, DeafTouch is starting Africa’s first outsourced digital and inclusive call centre.
“It will give access to call centre services to both the deaf and blind communities and [everyone else],” he said.
To date, a huge part of the business was on advocacy.
“One of the most striking outcomes that we have been able to see is that the deaf community is exciting, willing and able. But in the absence of opportunity as well as time and patience, unfortunately there is greater exclusion for them,” he said.
Through its advocacy work, DeafTouch partnered with organisations such as Deaf Empowerment Firm, DeafSA, and Lekkapri to campaign for South African Sign Language to become South Africa’s 12th official language.
“We have stood with the deaf community to advocate for the South African Sign Language to be made an official language. This means the public and the private sector can no longer choose to ignore or exclude them. They had to act, and they came to the party. President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the South African Sign Language Bill into law in July 2023. The language is now the country’s 12th official language. That was one of the greatest victories we have had so far,” Appies said.
Beyond its three permanent employees, the organisation has forged partnerships with various organisations in the deaf community. “It aims to create an eco-system that we call ‘a shared value eco-system’ that seeks to help every stakeholder unlock the value that rests with what we are doing,” he said.
Instead of only creating employment opportunities, DeafTouch engages in partnerships.
With the Deaf Empowerment Firm, a recruitment, training and interpreting services initiative for the hearing impaired, DeafTouch outsources services to this company through its sales strategy and advocacy.
The approach was the same with Lekkapri, a digital and social marketing company for the deaf.
DeafTouch is among a list of 18 finalists for the highly anticipated Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment SAB Foundation Awards 2023.
In 2018, the company won R40 000 from the Gauteng government’s Propeller Pitching Competition.