As a jack-of-all-trades, Virgilio Modica Jr. is used to working with his hands, but what sets him apart from other traditional handymen is that his hands also are what he uses to communicate.
Modica said, to his knowledge, he is the only deaf handyman in Georgia. His specialties include foundation repair, concrete work, building decks and screened porches, plumbing repair, as well as stone and tile work.
“I have done every kind of remodeling project from complete bathroom and kitchen remodels to basement finishes and exterior decks and covered porches,” he said. “It has not always been easy, and there will always be people who discriminate against the deaf community, but I try not to focus on that. I just concentrate on trying to be successful and being the best handyman in Cherokee County.”
As a third generation mason, Modica has been in the stone and brick laying business since he was 12 years old.
“Our parents came from Italy in 1967 to make a better life here in America,” he said. “Our father, Virgilio Modica Sr., was a brick layer, who learned the trade from his dad in Sicily.”
Modica and his sister, Elizabeth Modica Martin, were born in New Jersey but moved to Georgia later in their adult years. Growing up, Modica had a hard time communicating with his parents since learning sign language was not common at that time.
“They wanted the deaf kids to learn how to read lips, which is very difficult to do,” he said. “There was no deaf school nearby, so I had to go to a deaf boarding school (Mary Katzenback School for the Deaf).”
“I hated it because I had to be away from my family all week,” Modica continued.
Modica and his father, however, bonded through the art of masonry.
“My father worked hard as a mason and started a construction business in New Jersey called Modica & Son Construction Inc., where I started working for him during the summers at 12 years old,” he said. “When I finished school, I started working with him full time as a mason. I learned a lot from my dad regarding all types of masonry work: concrete, brick, stone, foundations, etc. He gave me the foundation of what I needed to know. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Modica Sr. retired and closed his business in the early 2000s.
“We both moved down to Georgia to be closer to my sister, Elizabeth,” Modica said.
Life wasn’t easy in the South for the New Jersey native, as he said it was hard for him to find a job.
“I looked for any kind of work, but I had a hard time finding anyone to hire me because I was deaf,” he said. “It was a difficult time for me because I was discriminated (against) because of my deafness. It’s an unfair fact of life for many deaf people. Plus, my father decided to move back to Sicily, so I did not have him to depend on either.”
Although his father returned to Sicily, Modica’s sister was still in Georgia and was willing to help him start his own business.
Modica & Son Handymen was born.
“When he decided he was going to open a business, I thought, ‘How is he going to do this? How is he going to answer the phone?’ And he said, ‘Well, you are going to help me,’” Martin recalled. “So, we started the company. My father started a business and I think my brother thought, ‘Well, why can’t I?’ Why should his deafness prohibit him from doing what he loves to do.”
Because she had a flexible schedule at the time, Martin would help her brother write proposals, answer the phone and interpret conversations.
Since he was building his company from the ground up, Modica said he didn’t want to limit his work to just construction so he renamed it to “handymen.” He kept “Modica & Son” in honor of his father’s former company.
Modica and his sister continued to work as a team for many years. Her job was to answer the phone and relay the client’s desire to her brother via text messages.
“That’s how we worked it for about five years: I would answer the phone and tell him where to go and what time,” she said. “I didn’t tell people that he was deaf. I did that one time, and he didn’t get the job because they already had a perception about him. I decided that I wasn’t going to tell anyone that he was deaf because it shouldn’t matter. It is his work that matters.”
Modica said business started out slow because people “were afraid to give me the job because I was deaf.” Those who did trust in his work referred his business to others.
“It’s hard when people don’t hire me because I’m deaf because they think ‘deaf and dumb.’ That is such a cliché that isn’t true,” he continued. “My deafness has made me better because my other senses are so much stronger.”
He said it also is challenging when people want to hire him at a cheaper price.
“He doesn’t like people taking advantage of him,” Martin said.
Battling the economy and people’s perception of him, Modica persevered and eventually had enough of a client base to create a portfolio.
“He had a lot of pictures of his work,” Martin said. “We also had referrals because there might be people who were apprehensive because he is deaf.”
They also relied on some advertising.
“We started advertising with the Ledger in 2006 and business was good, but then the recession hit. We tried other advertising, but everything else was just a waste of money,” Martin said. “Things were slow from 2008 to 2011, and he was struggling.”
Being the mediator for her brother also was challenging at times, but a few years ago, when video relay service (VRS) started, things took a turn for the better.
“Once it became portable, he could do the video relay service as long as he had Wi-Fi,” Martin said, adding that she bought her brother an iPad. “With the technology, now he was able to call customers.”
VRS allows Modica to speak through an interpreter. He simply dials the number he wishes to reach, signs to the interpreter and that person speaks to the person on the other line. The interpreter then relays what that person is saying back to Modica.
“The video relay service already has his number, so he doesn’t have to call a company. He just calls your number and a live person will come onto his screen,” Martin said. “The technology has allowed him to have a business, because without texting or the video relay service, there would be no way for him to have a business by himself.”
Modica’s friend, Josh Vergara, who also is deaf, created a website as a way for potential clients to see his work.
“I have many before and after photos of work that I’ve done,” Modica said.
Technology, in a sense, has given Modica independence.
“It helped in many ways,” he said. “I can look on the computer for different designs and ideas, especially for remodeling projects. It also has helped me with being able to communicate with customers. With the video relay service and cellphones, I am able to explain things better to customers using the technology.”
“I no longer had to depend on my sister to answer phones and talk with clients. I finally was able to do the business by myself,” Modica said. “Without this advanced technology, I would not have been able to independently run my own business.”
Another turning point in Modica’s career was when a Home Depot manager introduced him to redbeacon.com, which is a website for customers to seek local contractors to bid on projects.
“At first, I doubted it would help, but I ended up signing up and it has increased my business, as well,” he said. “Now, I’ve been self-employed for eight years and it’s been the best thing I could have ever done. I love what I do and I love making my customers happy. My customers don’t care that I’m deaf.”
For more information, visit www.modicaandson.com or call (404) 483-4547.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.