The founding of the Ohio School for the Deaf nearly 200 years ago was the spark for what would become a community of deaf people, young and old, in and around Columbus. Small cottage industries sprung up to meet the needs of this community. One, Keepsake Theme Quilts, gives 23 deaf people a place to work and be heard every day.

The founding of the Ohio School for the Deaf nearly 200 years ago was the spark for what would become a community of deaf people, young and old, in and around Columbus. Small cottage industries sprung up to meet the needs of this community. One, Keepsake Theme Quilts, gives 23 deaf people a place to work and be heard every day.

In the front room of a brick house on a tree-lined street in Bexley, six women are busily sewing. Four work around a table that encompasses nearly the entire space, leaving little room to walk its perimeter. With heads lowered and shears in hand, they intently focus on cutting a perfect square from the front of a T-shirt. Each shape plucked from the cloth contains the name of a city visited, an image of a road race run or the logo of an alma mater-memories destined for preservation. Two others are bent at sewing machines, bathed in sunlight beaming from the room's two windows, attaching the squares to conjoining strips of fabric, forming the front of a soon-to-be quilt. Faces of shirts are pinned to the wall in the order each customer requested for their one-of-a-kind memento; the women glance up and nod their approval. An overhead fan quietly swirls through the air as the machines softly hum. Feet shuffle, the floor creaks. Still, the room seems silent.

There's no chatter amid the cutting and stitching and sewing, no stories being told. No one gossips, laughs or hums the tune from a song playing on a radio. These ordinary sounds are missing because no one in the room can hear.

In the remaining rooms of this former home, which has been converted to house the office of Keepsake Theme Quilts, it is much the same. The second story, basement and even a refinished garage are scattered with employees-most of whom are deaf-who transform customers' old but memorable T-shirts into hand-sewn quilts. Aside from conversations between a customer and one of the two interpreters on staff, American Sign Language (ASL) is the only language used.

It's an environment that affords the deaf employees daily interaction with people who understand them, where they can communicate and work as an organized team. While theirs is one of only a handful of other workplaces in Central Ohio that is committed to employing deaf individuals, fostering them with interpreters and accommodations, it thrives on the foundation of an established deaf community. At its core is the historic Ohio School for the Deaf, which was the fifth all-deaf school (and the first public one) in the nation when it was founded nearly 200 years ago. The school continues to draw students from all corners of the state and this academic year had the largest enrollment in its history.

"There's been a renewed sense of family in the deaf community, and I think that has spawned some additional student growth," says superintendent Doug Lowery. "[Columbus] is the epicenter of deaf culture. There are more deaf individuals living in a clustered area here in Central Ohio than in any other area in the state."

At Keepsake Theme Quilts and in other Columbus workplaces, deaf adults have found a place where they belong, where they can speak and be heard and where they'll tell their story to anyone who's willing to listen.

Meredith Crane founded Keepsake Theme Quilts in 1999 as a way to earn money for her nonprofit organization Deaf Initiatives. With two sons who were born deaf, Crane was passionate about educating deaf children on the transition from high school into college or work. She frequently organized weekend-long workshops for deaf students in Ohio and their parents, taking bus trips to all-deaf universities in Washington, D.C., and Rochester, New York. She received some grants and donations as a nonprofit organization, but as the trips increased, so did expenses. She found a solution in Keepsake Theme Quilts and eventually solidified her mission in employing only deaf people.

"I wanted to have a business where people could come in and communicate without any barriers," she says. "I wanted a process, where it had a beginning, an end, where it was hands-on."

T-shirt quilts fit the bill. They require a specific skill and attention to detail to make, and the finished product is tangible and meaningful. She just hoped they would sell.

The business, also nonprofit, began slowly, with just herself, a seamstress who is deaf and a quilter who can hear but is fluent in ASL. They begged friends to let them turn old T-shirts into quilts. Soon, as the novelties-a functional way to preserve memories-became popular for graduation and holiday gifts, she stopped having to beg.

As orders increased, so did Crane's payroll. Now, she is joined by 23 deaf employees who work as seamstresses and production assistants and two certified ASL interpreters who work primarily with customers. Three quilters outside Keepsake Theme Quilts bind the pieces together with machines that wouldn't fit in the already crowded house. Over the years, they have developed a system tailored to those who can't hear. Pictures are often used in place of numbers and words; instructions are drawn instead of written.

Crane explains that English, just like with any other language, doesn't always directly translate to ASL. She has learned that visual communication often leaves less opportunity for confusion and adjusted the system accordingly.

An example is their method for tracking and organizing orders. Instead of assigning each quilt an order number, it gets a name like butterfly or french fry and a corresponding picture and two letters-BU and FF, in these instances. Each order has a drawer, appropriately labeled, and each T-shirt for that order is pinned with the representative picture. This way, when a seamstress has a question about a particular order, she'll simply fingerspell two letters and look for a picture rather than tediously sign a lengthy number sequence.

They work on multiple orders at once, and each takes roughly 25 working days to complete, says interpreter and customer service representative Janet Vance. In mid-November, they had more than 200 quilts to finish before Christmas. With deadlines like those, there's no time to talk-especially not when you talk with your hands.

"That's a big problem here!" Crane says with a laugh. "We don't have time to talk, because the minute you start talking, you're not working. So there's a fine line here between, 'OK, this is just not fair! [At] normal places, you talk and you work.' But the reality is you can't talk and work all the time."

But they do communicate with one another throughout the day, whether it's to solve a problem with a T-shirt arrangement, confirm a change with an order or commend a job well done. And when there are conversations, they usually don't remain between two people.

"Deaf people can sometimes be starved for communication in their lives," Crane says. "If we have a situation, the whole group will get involved to try to solve the problem because they want to communicate. They have an opinion, and they want to express their ideas."

They might not be chatting all day while they work, but they're certainly interacting more than they ever have in the workplace before.

Five years ago, office manager Shonna Collins was working the third shift, stocking shelves at Kmart.

"The schedule was awful," she says through an interpreter. "I was often alone because I am deaf. I felt left out because other people would be talking and laughing, and I didn't feel included because I didn't know what they were saying."

Now, Collins-who graduated valedictorian from the Kentucky School for the Deaf before attending the all-deaf Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.-practically runs the business, managing fabric inventory, placing orders, handling shipments, hiring new employees and inspecting finished products before they're sent home to customers. She has her own office with two computers. She says she's proud of her career and that this job, which she earned after several internal promotions, has helped her realize her potential.

She's not alone in her sentiment. Downstairs, the other women share their stories.

Judy Bryant has worked here as a seamstress for nearly 10 years. Now she's a supervisor, too, managing the other seamstresses and production assistants and ensuring quilts are sewn correctly and finished on time.

"I really like the opportunity to work with other deaf individuals," she says. "It's really easy to communicate with them."

Bryant graduated from the Ohio School for the Deaf decades ago and has since held many different jobs, including working as an auditing clerk for Aetna. Though there were a few other deaf employees working in different departments with whom she could chat during her lunch break, she didn't enjoy it nearly as much as her current job.

"I felt more alone," she says. "I focused on my work mostly."

Bryant recently referred a friend she met while in school to join the team at Keepsake Theme Quilts. Mary Crum works three days a week, commuting from her home in Coshocton, an hour and 15 minutes each way. She says it's worth the drive.

"I've worked at different places with lots of different hearing people, and they're all chattering and I'm working alone. I didn't enjoy it at all," Crum says. "Here, it's open. We can discuss problems, what's happening, what's wrong, what's right. And I feel like I'm learning a lot, so I really like working here much better."

For Karen Campbell, it was the opportunity to learn and advance that drew her away from her previous job. She was the only deaf employee at a local embroidery shop, where she worked for eight years until joining Keepsake Theme Quilts five years ago.

"The boss didn't really let me try anything else," she says. "I was stuck in the same position all the time."

The inability to communicate with her coworkers only made things worse.

"I felt left out. I felt lousy," she adds. "I finally got a job here, and I really love it. I'm learning and it's really challenging, but in a good way. There is more opportunity to learn new things."

Though their stories are different, the message is much the same. In every job they had ever held before and throughout much of their lives, they felt lonely, disengaged and unimportant.

"This is a place that I think they feel empowered," Crane says. "I know they feel important, and they make a product that people absolutely love. Most people don't have an understanding of the pervasiveness of not being able to hear and how it impacts so many aspects of your life. You'll [see them working] and go, 'What's the big deal? They're awesome. They're productive. They communicate.' Outside these four walls, though, it's challenging."

On a Sunday afternoon, Brandon Coleman is leafing through a newspaper. The deaf 29-year-old spends his weekends searching for jobs in his field of interest. He graduated three years ago from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. In three years, he has had one interview. Though he accepted that position two years ago and still works as a landscaper for Facemyer Co., he continues to apply for positions with engineering firms-locally and as far away as Texas. Landscaping is too physically demanding and not nearly challenging enough for a guy who enjoys solving math problems and tinkering with design software.

"I know it's hard to find a job because we are deaf," he says. "There are so many questions about deaf people: 'How can I communicate with him? Is he smart enough?' I just wish they would give me an opportunity to show them." He's already proven himself in another industry: Coleman was the only deaf driver to race at the Columbus Motor Speedway. He raced from 2008 through 2012, relying on the car's vibrations to sense mechanical problems that usually present themselves with noise.

Coleman's fiancee Jessica Powers works for Keepsake Theme Quilts as a bill processor, social media guru and supervisor for the student internship program. Though Powers, also deaf but verbal and easy to understand, has worked in restaurants and retail stores, many of her deaf friends don't work. She agrees it's more difficult for deaf people to find employment, but sometimes the reason for unemployment is the person.

"I hate when deaf people say, 'Oh, I can't work,' " she says. "It's not that. It's just that they need to improve their confidence."

Powers grew up in a small town outside of Houston, Texas, and was the only deaf person in her community. She was shocked when her high school guidance counselor told her about all-deaf universities.

"I didn't know! I thought I was the only deaf person in the world," she says. There weren't deaf schools or even deaf classes in her hometown. She read lips and sounded out words her entire life, until she met Coleman in Rochester, New York, and he taught her to communicate through ASL.

Students travel from all corners of Ohio to attend the state's only public school for the deaf (there is a private school for the deaf in Cincinnati). The majority of students travel home after school each day, but 80 stay overnight in dormitories Sunday evening through Friday afternoon, Lowery says.

The school has grown in size and stature since it was founded with one student in 1829. Originally located Downtown, the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb was the first deaf school in the nation to be completely funded by the state. Baseball's first successful deaf major league player, William Ellsworth Hoy, graduated valedictorian from the school in 1879 before playing 14 seasons in the majors and being inducted to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2003. Some credit Hoy with the implementation of the umpire's hand signals, while others attribute those to another deaf player, Ed Dundon, who also played for the Ohio School for the Deaf and entered the major league before Hoy but earned less recognition.

In addition to welcoming its largest enrollment in history at nearly 200 students,this academic year has also been the inaugural year for the school's new building, with 26 classrooms equipped with state-of-the-art technology designed specifically for deaf students.

Eighteen students are enrolled in the school's 4PLUS program, a post-secondary option for students ages 18 to 22 who need additional help transitioning into independence. Depending on each student's needs, teachers and administrators can help them understand financial responsibility, learn to drive a car or navigate COTA and prepare for college.

"We try to provide them a skill set that's going to make them a productive member of society," Lowery says. Students also have access to job coaching and internship opportunities with local businesses.

"We cover the waterfront," he adds. They offer programs for children as young as 3 months old and work closely with Columbus Colony, a nursing home and retirement facility in Westerville operated by the Ohio School for the Deaf Alumni Association. "We have a lot of multigenerational deaf families [in Columbus]-parents and grandparents [of our students] who attended [the Ohio School for the Deaf] and live at Columbus Colony. It's nice to have all of that culture, a group of people living in the same area." Columbus Colony's predecessor dug its roots here as Ohio's first and only home for the deaf in 1896. In 1977, it was replaced by Columbus Colony, a 100-acre housing complex that includes a nursing home, apartment complex and rehabilitation facility. It is still the only one like it in the nation, says nursing home administrator Christine Conselyea. A similar community on the East Coast doesn't have ties to a deaf school.

About 47 percent of Columbus Colony residents are deaf, Conselyea says. Another portion is blind, and some are both blind and deaf. The facility employs 11 deaf people, but all 180 employees are required to know sign language. The appeal to live and work here is strong among the deaf community, she says. "I think they're looking for a community of people that can relate to them."

The city's established deaf community has paved the way for additional opportunities-not only for those who are deaf but also those who can hear.

The Columbus State Community College Interpreting and ASL Education Program was one of the first in Ohio. Founded in 1979, the program offers courses in ASL, interpreting and deaf culture and is widely recognized, says Chris Evenson, program coordinator and professor of ASL.

"One of the reasons our program is so successful, and probably the most important reason, is the deaf community here in Central Ohio," Evenson says. "Our students have a chance to be a part of the community, and the community has been so generous with their time and their willingness to help students to learn their language and their culture."

Columbus is also home to the Deaf Services Center, the largest organization of its kind in the state. The nonprofit center in Worthington, which serves 23 counties in central and southeast Ohio, was founded in 1991 to lead deaf people and their families to deaf-community events, education, career counseling and ASL classes. Deaf Services can even provide accommodations like interpreters and videophones paid for by the FCC to help deaf people adjust to a new, all-hearing work environment. The organization's work with children and teens is especially important, says Marsha Moore, director of public relations and development.

"We found that intervention at early ages helps them to succeed in the future and their later lives," she says, using a videophone that lets her sign to an ASL interpreter who speaks on her behalf.

Crane is of a similar mind. Keepsake Theme Quilts offers an internship program to students and recent high school graduates looking for their first work experience. They learn more than how to sew a T-shirt blanket.

Powers teaches them communication skills, proper workplace conduct and how to budget their money. She's even taught them how to cook and accurately measure ingredients. More importantly, she improves their self-esteem. "Some of them don't have confidence," she says. "My goal is to teach them that they can [work]; they can communicate with other hearing people."

Crane's dream was to "set up a work environment where people could come and be fulfilled and be happy," and she's done exactly that.

She's not suggesting that businesses shift to an all-deaf employment model. It's not for everyone, she admits. But she is calling for a little progressiveness.

"I think that everybody needs to open their minds to what people with challenges can do with their lives," Crane says. "Nobody wants to sit home and collect a check. I think people want to wake up and feel like they're contributing."