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IRP Stories: Newfoundland Social Enterprise, Read Our Lips, is One of the Only in the World Teaching Lip Reading Online

NICKIE SHOBEIRY  NOVEMBER 27, 2020

This is part of our Investment Readiness Program series, showcasing how IRP funding is helping social purpose organizations prepare for investment while continuing to have a positive impact on their communities.

In Canada, 1 in 5 people will experience hearing loss, often going unrecognized for years. The Canadian Hard of Hearing Association Newfoundland and Labrador (CHHA-NL) is a non-profit tackling the issue through awareness, accessibility and advocacy services. To continue creating a better quality of life for hard of hearing and late deafened people, CHHA-NL launched its first social enterprise, Read Our Lips. The business is a recipient of the Investment Readiness Program (IRP) funding, helping it to become investment ready. 

Launched in 2019, Read Our Lips is a self-paced online course, teaching lip reading to adults. “For many years, we have been offering classes to the community to teach speech and lip reading skills,” says Alison Butler, Read Our Lips’ sole project manager. “We were really restricted with staffing resources, [so] we thought, why don’t we turn this into an online learning opportunity, to make the course accessible to anyone in their own home?”

As a social enterprise, Read Our Lips uses the sale of its courses for a public good. “Once we’re making a profit, all of the revenues go back into supporting our programming in local communities,” Butler says. This includes CHHA-NL’s hearing screenings, and a tech-lending program for hearing devices.

By preparing it for investors, the IRP funding is helping Read Our Lips to scale, eventually hitting Canada-wide markets. As the social enterprise grows, CHHA-NL’s impact will increase, further improving the wellbeing of its community. “If we bring [lip reading] into the mainstream, it encourages people to treat their hearing challenges at an earlier point in time,” Butler says. “It leads to better communication, better quality of life for people.”

Read Our Lips Receives $30,000 to Get Investment Ready

With $30,000 in IRP funding, Read Our Lips is creating the materials needed to show investors it’s ready for backing, such as a marketing plan and revenue projections. The $30,000 is non-repayable capital, meaning Read Our Lips won’t need to pay it back.

“As a nonprofit and a startup, we don’t have huge investment money,” Butler says. “Being very consumer-based, we have smaller amounts of revenue trickling in. We’ve invested in the initial piece, but you have to have money to pay for advertising and staff. [The IRP] really gives us a solid shot at bringing in a larger piece of investment.”

Read Our Lips is looking for workplaces that may be interested in bulk course purchases. “The specific funding that we applied for was to work with a team of consultants to do research for us, so that we can get the product out there in new and innovative ways. As a one-person team, it’s very difficult to do it all. This funding really allows us to have someone do that groundwork for us, and take the guesswork out of it.”

Butler has already begun working with a consulting team. “It’s working out really well for us so far,” she says. “I’m hoping that at the end of this project, what we’ll be left with are some really solid sales leads for larger organizations where we can come in, understand their mandate, and how we might fit into that.”

Reflecting on what makes Read Our Lips attractive to investors, Butler says, “We are one of the only groups in the world offering online training that’s specific to lip reading. We’re the only one in Canada that we know of.” She adds, “A lot of people are starting to pay more attention to wellness, [but] do not pay attention to their hearing in the way that they should. Being able to lip-read is a piece of the puzzle. For example, none of us hear well in noisy environments, and lip reading allows our brains to fill in the blanks.”

Looking to the Future

Like many social enterprises, Read Our Lips has been impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another. “We’re doing a lot of promotion of hearing-accessible face masks — masks that have clear panels that allow for lip reading,” Butler says. As well as this, “we’ve seen a much bigger shift to online learning, which is super great for Read Our Lips. A lot of people who may have been previously hesitant about their internet skills [have] been forced a little bit more into that sphere.”

Looking beyond the pandemic, Butler says, “as more people understand the value of lip reading, and what comes with lip reading — being a clear speaker, looking at people when you’re speaking to them — these little pieces come together. My hope is that, as we become better communicators, we all work in interacting with each other to create a better community.”