When life presents you with challenges, either you fight or accept. Meet Roxanne, a brave woman, an inspirational personality, and a pioneering leader- who rose to victory by helping the deaf community tenfold. Let’s learn more about her journey.
Roxanne Whiting was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada by Deaf parents. Her first languages were American Sign Language (ASL) and English. Being raised in two distinct cultures, Deaf and Hearing, she understands the communication struggles both groups have with each other. Manoeuvring through this bi-cultural world strengthened her resolve to bridge this communication gap. This is the reason she is a passionate advocate for putting people like her parents and their peers on an equal playing field with hearing people. She began interpreting at a young age for interactions with people who did not learn or know sign language including her extended family, the bank, doctors’ offices, and, at times, with her parents’ employers. These experiences taught her how to make sense of the world and use those life experiences, striving to build a better communication mechanism.
During high school, she became the manager of two retail stores and worked hard at school and work. At that time, she knew she wanted a post-secondary education but was struggling with which profession she wanted to pursue. A chance conversation with a former teacher led her to pursue sign language interpreting. The teacher, Mrs. Clark, pointed out to her that she was a native ASL user and with her communication skills and ability to connect with people, a career as an interpreter would be perfect. She gave it some thought and realized that her life experiences up until that moment had set her up for success and she needed to dive in and go for it!
A Ground-breaking Leadership
Being a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) and exposed to a diverse range of people and cultures, she experienced many interactions where the communication broke down. She would feel the disappointment, confusion, and embarrassment on each of those occurrences at a visceral level and she vowed to find a way to change that. Building on her instinct and native understanding of Deaf culture and life experiences, she is passionate about leveraging technology to ensure that communication is not a barrier to accessing information, services, and experiences.
Today, in her role as Director of Business Development, Opportunities, and Technology, Roxanne strives to connect interpreting services with people who need to communicate, a vital service that is better, more far-reaching, and has a bigger impact on society than ever before. Colleagues refer to her as a thought-leader in the field of video interpreting and the first to create management positions for Deaf Interpreters in Canada. She has presented and spoken at conferences related to the sign language interpreting field. She is accredited with the Federal Government Translation Bureau with a specialization in interpreting services with the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.
There are 3 owners of the company: Roxanne Whiting, Brenda Jenkins, and Candice Presley. Brenda and Candice were the first founders of the business, while Roxanne Whiting joined the company in 2000 and became an owner in 2007.
About SLIAO (Sign Language Interpreting Associates Ottawa Inc.)
SLIAO was incorporated in 1997, by a group of ASL Interpreters, to improve the quality and availability of interpreting services in the Ottawa area. Today, it is Canada’s leading expert in sign language interpreting and translation services, both in-person, and via video. SLIAO is known for its quality interpreting and translation services, providing excellent customer service.
The organization works with and employs interpreters and translators with expertise in government, conferences, business, legal, post-secondary, and community type work from across the country. Working with SLIAO means that services, employment opportunities, and information are fully accessible for everyone.
SLIAO’s vision is to increase the availability and access to interpreting and translation services and provide sustainable employment opportunities for interpreters. In 2014, Roxanne led the charge to create its video interpreting division and re-invent the marketing presence. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) leverages technology, bringing a sign language interpreter into the conversation between a Deaf and Hearing person via video using a smartphone, tablet, or computer with a webcam. Seizing the advances in technology, Roxanne led the integration of video and remote interpreting, allowing SLIAO to offer qualified interpreters on-demand, an industry leading breakthrough.
Whether in the public or private sector, there are opportunities to work with Deaf or hard-of-hearing people. In fact, in Canada, it is required by law to meet accessibility standards that grant equal access to information for all. ASL/Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ) translation is used to provide sign language interpretation for important documents, legislature, and many other forms of content. SLIAO provides this service for French and English documents in a video format for placement on electronic media.
Overcome Challenges with Confidence and Performance
SLIAO has seen a big increase in the request for its interpreting and translation services. People are finally beginning to understand that communication is a basic human right and providing it will garner results on a personal or business level. Interpreters want to work for a company that values their skills and their contributions to the field; as well as being an ally to the Deaf community. It is a win-win situation for everyone!
Communicating that we are an interpreter, certified, all women-owned & led business that employs Deaf people in leadership positions has increased our credibility and respect in this community. Much of the work I do would not be possible without my team. SLIAO is a strong team. Leveraging the individual strengths and areas of expertise of 3 founders, it has built a culture of excellence and innovation within the company and, most importantly, for its’ clients.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused lockdowns in March 2020, SLIAO’s incredible team sprang into action. In 2018, Roxanne Whiting wrote a “Work From Home” plan to increase its interpreting capacity for the video interpreting work. As a result of this advanced planning, they were well prepared to set up interpreters across the country within a matter of days. This rapid pivot meant clients did not experience any service disruptions.
The challenge SLIAO was presented with by the COVID pandemic caused a change in its economic environment as in-person interpreting work, which consisted of 40% of revenues in 2019. As a result of restrictions placed on businesses by the Federal and Provincial governments, in-person work came to a grinding halt. However, because of their knowledge and experience, the team were quickly able to shift those engagements to VRI, and regroup its interpreter pool to provide increased hours via video, both on Canada Video Relay Service (VRS) and VRI, as both of these communication mechanisms were deemed an essential service.
Communication to the Deaf community remains a crucial service, especially amid a pandemic. With call centres in the west, central, and the east, SLIAO provides services across the country. We’ll continue to expand our services, our technology, and our team to meet the increasing demand for quality communication channels. We all benefit when everyone can be understood.
In 2016, SLIAO was awarded a contract by the Canadian Administrator of Video Relay Services (CAV) as a Video Interpreter Provider to the Canada VRS service and now provides ASL-English interpreters from call centres in Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, and Halifax, in addition to a growing remote workforce. VRS is a basic telecommunications service that enables people with hearing or speech disabilities who use sign language to communicate with voice telephone users. The sign language user connects to an interpreter using Internet-based videoconferencing.
In 2020, Roxanne Whiting was a semi-finalist in the Established Entrepreneur Category for the Businesswomen of the Year Award (BYA) presented by the Women’s Business Network Ottawa. That same year, SLIAO was awarded the Best Ottawa Business Award. In 2021, Roxanne Whiting became a semi-finalist in the CANIE Women Entrepreneur of the Year award presented by the Innovators and Entrepreneurs Foundation.
A Holistic Presentation of Leadership Principles
Roxanne Whiting has been a spokesperson for a better world since she was a little girl: defending and supporting the rights of her Deaf parents, working with school programs to mentor peers, and volunteering her time on various boards to merge her ideals and goals for an inclusive society with like-minded people. Her leadership style is celebrating and encouraging successes with her team and throwing her energy into the experience of lifting others to realize their potential.
Roxanne’s mother was a strong mentor in her life. She was a leader in the Deaf community; she believed that everyone should be included and without the support of others, one can accomplish very little. She was her best friend, mentor, and sounding board. In the weeks leading up to her passing in 2010, we spoke a lot about supporting people to do their best and treating everyone with respect and as equals, no matter what language they speak or which culture they identify with. This conversation with her comes to mind often, and encourages me to be relentless in my pursuit of ensuring access to communication is available anywhere, to anyone, at any time.
Roxanne Whiting has leveraged her connection with the Deaf community, interpreting skills, and interpersonal and customer service skills to this emerging and exciting medium of video interpreting in Canada. Video interpreting has benefited thousands of Deaf Canadians, provided sustainable employment for interpreters, and changed the business of SLIAO rapidly.
Leading her team from the forefront ensures that SLIAO continues to be a supportive place to work and grow as professionals. The majority of its interpreters are women, mothers striving for work-life balance. The organization’s model and philosophy promote respect, professionalism, reciprocity and caring for each other and their families.
My business philosophy is largely based on reciprocity, which I learned from the Deaf community. There is always someone you can help, support, advise or listen to and when you need the same support, you will not have to wait too long before someone in the community steps in to help. No matter how tired or frustrated I am, I push on because it is the right thing to do. I can think things through quickly and have proven that my ideas work. My team at SLIAO leans on me to deal with difficult clients and situations. Above all, I love being able to lead people to see the bigger picture and work together to do something great. I am proud to use my initiative and influence; without it, we would not be where we are today and where we are headed in the future.
Accelerating with Time
Before SLIAO won the VRS contract, the company grew on average 2% between 2007 and 2015. According to reports produced by IBISWorld in 2018, Translation/Interpreting is a $6.4-billion-dollar industry in the US, with annual growth projected for the next 5 years at 3.1 %, and net profits at 4%. IBISWorld has stated that this industry is in the growth phase of its life cycle. At that time, The Canadian market was estimated at $450 million. This market is served by over 800 firms and some 4,500 independent workers. The expected rate of annual growth ranges between 5% and 10%, slightly higher than the US market. SLIAO has experienced exponential growth, dramatically increasing its capacity starting in 2017, and is well-positioned to continue using technology to reach more Canadians, and advertise its product offering abroad. Already, some US-based organizations use SLIAO’s services.
Organizations are looking for a one-stop service for their interpreting and translation requirements. Many translation companies offer spoken language interpreting and translation services that do not understand and appreciate the differences and needs of the sign language interpreting field and its users.
SLIAO will continue to be a leader and expert in the field competing with these large companies, making sure its service offering is robust and personalized to the customer’s expectations. Technology has opened the door to expand the company’s service offering. Roxanne Whiting researched and found technology partners to provide web-based technology to connect individuals that need to communicate with professional language services, giving its clients a superior customer experience through online booking, streamlined interpreter scheduling processes, and a robust VRI interface. This technology provides access to on-demand over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) or VRI services, giving SLIAO the ability to offer over 140 languages to its customers, a key competitive advantage.
With its VRI technology and approach to servicing the unique cultural needs of the Deaf community, it can enable Deaf and Hearing Interpreters to work as a team, an innovation not seen before in the VRI market.
“In 2018, I wrote SLIAO’s submission to the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund and was awarded a grant of $100,000 by Minister Ng in 2019 to allow us to innovate and grow our business using VRI. With those additional funds, we were able to boost the marketing efforts of our VRI service, increase interpreter recruitment and grow our workforce capacity within Canada”, concludes Roxanne Whiting.