Debra Cartlidge began losing her hearing when she was five years old. To begin with she not only struggled to hear what was going on at school, but also found it hard to admit that she couldn’t hear. “Having all that negativity going on in my life growing up”, Debra tells us, “being told I was fit for nothing and never going to achieve anything, I just feel that I’m in a position now to pass on my experiences but put it in a positive way”.

And that’s exactly what she’s done. Debra set up the The School of Sign Language sixteen years ago and that has expanded and recently grown into the Deaf Hub as well. A MarketFinance RLS loan is helping her complete the build of the latest stage of the business: a residential school. Everything Debra does is to support the deaf community and offer opportunities where they don’t seem possible.

A chance meeting

A pivotal moment in Debra’s life (and the seed that went on to grow her business) was when a woman suggested she learn sign language. Something resonated and she went to the local charity to see what her options were. By chance there was a sign language class happening that night and soon she was hooked. The opportunity to be introduced to the deaf community gave her the confidence she needed to lose the negative labels she’d been carrying for years.

Debra coordinated British Sign Language (BSL) lessons around Lancashire, but sadly funding dried up for this. She took on another job as a Communications Support Worker and became even more immersed in the deaf community. This was when she felt like it was time for her to make a difference. Deaf schools had been shut down and mainstream education was becoming the only option. She decided to set up courses for hearing children at schools, which nobody had done before, and it all snowballed from there.

Demand was so huge, with requests for her team to run sessions across the country, so she came up with a brilliant idea. She replicated herself by creating an online character that teaches basic sign language. The reason, Debra explains, “is to plant a seed into children’s heads”. She’s a firm believer that it just takes one bit of encouragement or a new opportunity to help people achieve things they never thought possible.

Making a real difference

“For us it’s always about thinking outside the box and thinking about how we can contribute to the deaf community”. And soon it became clear to Debra that what she was doing was more than just teaching: it was a business.

While working full time, studying and being a full-time mum, Debra pursued her dream for the busines. She went to a local business support hub and they out her on a six-week course to learn how to set up and run a business. She got £1,800 to pay for her website and other basics. “It was really, really hard, but nothing’s easy, I didn’t expect it to be. But I had this passion and drive to make a difference and I knew I could make that difference”, Debra explains.

Debra wants to give people higher aspirations, despite being deaf. “I can give them opportunities, and that is the biggest word in this business”, she told us. She wants to turn the negativity that coloured her experience growing up into a positive. Changing the lives of the deaf community is a privilege that has come from the opportunities she feels lucky enough to have had.

Debra’s tireless and inspirational work has been recognised via numerous awards, including Linguist of the Year in 2006, where she came sixth (Noam Chomsky won)! She was blown away and it was a massive boost to her confidence that she could achieve more with her business. “Being nominated and being recognised for the work that you’ve done feeds that passion even more”, she says. She’s also won Inspirational Woman of the Year and Disabled Entrepreneur Award.

Always striving for more

The business has been running for sixteen years now and her passion has never faltered. Despite ups and downs that are familiar to all business owners, The School of Sign Language has grown over the years and last year they were able to expand further. They created a Deaf Hub and set up as an independent school to offer residential care to deaf people.

They do their outreach at the Deaf Hub where they have a transition programme for 18 years onwards. They offer arts and crafts, education, socialising and drop-in sessions to help with things like benefits. Now they’re going one step further by renovating a building to become a post-16 specialist institution, with a residential option for over-18s. They’re using it to bridge the gap between deaf and hearing students in education to offer different pathways to adulthood. Set over two acres in nature with breath-taking landscapes, it’s hard not to feel inspired by the work going on here.

When Debra realised she’d need more cash to complete the works, she turned to her broker, who introduced her to MarketFinance for an RLS loan. “Without the recovery loan we would’ve had a half-finished residential home sat in the middle of the deaf village”, she explains. The fast process was a huge bonus for Debra, who, like all business owners, doesn’t have much time. According to her, “it was such an easy process. I am so busy and I’ve just got to get things done really quickly. It was just seamless”.

“We’re always going to be striving for more, asking What can we do next? How are we going to serve the deaf community?”, she explains. We’re so pleased to be able to help Debra and her team complete the residential renovation and can’t wait to see what’s next for the business. With spectacular ruins on their land, creating an even bigger residential space is the next dream. Watch this space.