From the December 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Signing On

Working with deaf or blind clients need not be impossible. All you need are the right tools--and the right attitude.

It's a Thursday afternoon, and you're preparing for a routine client meeting. You pull out your clients' file--which unfortunately still lives in a beige manila folder since you have had no time to transfer everything to the computer. You lay the materials out in front of you, and turn your monitor toward the empty chairs in your office reserved for meetings like this. Typing away at the keyboard, you pull up your client's portfolio and create some charts and graphs to better demonstrate the performance of their holdings. The meeting goes as planned, and with a bit of tweaking, your clients are happy and on the right track toward retirement.

An hour later, a new client couple arrives for some estate planning and help with their recent inheritance. They walk in, take a seat, and you begin your presentation. You speak as you always do, but you turn your head away just for a moment, and when you look back, you are surprised to see a puzzled expression on their faces. They ask you to repeat what you just said, and that's when you realize that they have been reading your lips. Now the introductory video presentation you painstakingly produced last year won't work--it's not closed-captioned, and there are no lips to read. You start to feel flustered and unsure of how to continue--you've never been in this situation before.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000 there were more than three million sensory-impaired people living in the United States, while there were 2,325 institutions/schools for the deaf and hearing-impaired, and 1,885 schools/institutions for the blind and visually impaired. And though most advisors have probably never considered the possibility of working with hearing- or visually-impaired persons--mostly because of the communication hurdle you'd have to get over--there is in fact a need for financial planning in these populations. "It's different working with hearing-impaired clients, because you have to understand the way they go about getting information," says Joel A. Larson, a senior VP and investment officer at Wachovia Securities in Davis, California. "You have to work and think differently."

The same holds true for visually impaired and blind clients, offers Jeff Massey, an advisor and estate counselor in Cumberland, Rhode Island. "You don't want to say things like, 'Can you see what I mean?' I learned that the hard way," he says. As a commission-based planner who mostly works with retirees, Massey says the challenge is being cognizant of the little things. For instance, the projection of your voice needs to be clear. "You don't want to use a lot of excess language explaining what you are trying to convey, and you have to be able to paint a mental picture for them through words." You have to be more in control of every word you use, he continues. Patience is by far the most important attribute because "there are times when your client may say, 'Slow down' or 'Repeat that,' and you either have the patience or you don't," he says. "In our business, there are too many people who are rushed and don't explain things properly, or they are trying to impress people with their knowledge and are talking over their heads. It is unfortunate because it is such a technical area, and you have to keep it simple and understandable for every client."

After working with a dozen hearing-impaired clients, Larson says you eventually learn how to communicate differently. "For hard-of-hearing clients, you have to speak deeper and at a lower frequency. It is something small, but it makes all the difference in the world." Often one person in a married couple will be able to read lips very well, he says, and that's generally how you communicate. However, that isn't always the case. Many times an interpreter needs to be involved. "I don't use an interpreter when I am one-on-one with my clients," he says. "I sign a little and finger spell a lot." But when doing seminars, he does hire interpreters. "I'm not that good at signing," he laughs. "In fact, I learned how to sign out of self-defense." Larson recalls when he tried to join a bowling league several years ago and the only openings were in the deaf league. "I was often the butt of jokes without realizing it," he smiles. That was where he met two of his current clients.

English as a Second Language

When first researching the topic of advising for the hearing-impaired, we came across a planner who not only specialized in this niche but was deaf himself. Our interview was conducted over the phone, and we spoke through an interpreter. "I have to thank my parents for giving me an ambiguous name," offers Lee Kramer, principal advisor with Kramer Financial in Frederick, Maryland. "When I would cold-call prospective clients, they would hear a female voice, and I wouldn't even have to explain that I was calling through an interpreter. So they wouldn't know that I was deaf until they showed up for the meeting and would be surprised to find that not only was I deaf but I was also a man."

Born deaf, Kramer began his financial career after asking family and some deaf friends about investments and the stock market, and having all of the answers come back the same: "'I don't know.'" "I realized there was a need within the deaf community for financial services and education," he recalls. "A lot of my friends and family had been going to hearing financial advisors, and because of a lack of communication, they were just misinformed about some of the investments they had." Currently, Kramer has clients across the country and has two other planners who work with him. "The deaf community is very small and close-knit, so anything that happens, good or bad, spreads very quickly," he continues. "Fortunately for me, that really helped build my practice, not only in the deaf community but also in the hearing community."

As a deaf planner, communication with his deaf clients is not as difficult as it is with hearing clients. "Most of my clients prefer to meet in person because we can use our natural language of American sign language," Kramer says. "With videoconferencing we can do that as well, but it is not as personal and with TTY [also known as TDD--Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, see next page for more info] phones or e-mail, we are still using our second language of English." Even then an interpreter is often required. "We have had situations during a meeting with deaf clients where we needed to call their employer and find out information on their 401(k) program," he continues. "For the most part, luckily, with technology today I am able to access pretty much everything that hearing advisors can access." When Kramer deals with hearing clients, however, the interpreter always has to be available. "Communication is obviously crucial, especially for concepts that can be as complex as financial matters and investments." So for advisors considering working with the hearing-impaired, "there is just no way to accomplish clear communication without the use of sign language," he says. "If the advisor himself cannot provide sign language communication, then he or she should look into providing communication services," argues Kramer. "Some people will try to get away with e-mail or writing back and forth, but English is a second language for most deaf people, and your message may not be as clear as you think."

Other than communication, however, there are relatively few challenges that deaf planners or clients face compared to hearing planners or clients. With the exception of the TTY machines, Kramer doesn't have any special modifications or any other special tools in his practice. And for other services, such as estate planning and tax preparation, he refers clients to other professionals who will come in and use his office and his interpreter. That way it is convenient for both the client and the outside professional.

Technology

Additionally, Larson continues, if you are a hearing advisor you will have to make some computer adjustments in your office for your hearing-impaired clients. "You are either going to need a TTY telephone or TTY software on your computer, and with most wirehouses you are not going to get that to run because of the firewalls," he explains. "You also have to expect to pay for your own equipment."

TTY telephones can cost anywhere from $300 to $600, depending on what model you purchase. Calls made to or from TTY phones go through a message relay center where a third party translates the spoken words of a hearing caller into text for an impaired caller, and vice versa. Having two machines, the callers type back and forth to one another.

Fortunately, e-mail has made corresponding with his deaf clients much easier and more efficient, says Larson. The only challenge, Larson points out, is that "you can't accept trades by e-mail. You have to get special permission and authorizations, and that makes things a bit difficult. But it can be done."

For visually impaired and blind clients, there is limited technology available, and most people will almost always need to "borrow a set of eyes," says Darren Burton of the American Foundation for the Blind. A former principal at an investment firm, Burton gradually lost his vision. Now he works to educate businesses on making their firms accessible to the visually impaired; he also runs two investment accounts for the organization. "I use the JAWS computer program to read things," he says. For the books he uses Quicken, but for one account with Merrill and another with Wachovia, "they send paper reports, which don't really help that much. If they could put the monthly statements into an electronic format and e-mail that to me, it would be so much better. I wouldn't have to be borrowing eyes asking what it says." He can go online for some services, but most of the financial Web sites are not accessible with his speaking software. JAWS, which stands for Job Access With Speech, was developed in 1987 by the Freedom Scientific Blind/Low Vision Group (www.freedomscientific.com) in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The JAWS software runs a speech synthesizer and "speaks" the content of printed material to the user. Even though a site may be compatible, often graphics and tables are not, he says. Take, for example, your phone bill, which typically contains many different text blocks. If you read everything line by line from left to right, it wouldn't make any sense, and that is what JAWS and scanners that read and speak text do. Financial calculators are an issue as well. "There are some talking ones but they are expensive," he says. "I can use Excel as a calculator, but not everyone can."

For someone to make their Web site compatible with JAWS, there are certain attributes you can write into the HTML coding. For instance, code in "Alt = (blank)," where Alt means alternative text. "So I could input Alt = (logo of IBM stock), and my computer would speak 'logo of IBM stock,'" Burton says. "A lot of times information has not been coded correctly to work with a screen reader, so our organization shows people how to do that."

Overall, Burton says e-mail and Braille keyboards are great, and he definitely prefers speech rather than reading Braille. But many blind people want documents like account statements in Braille. "I would never expect companies to provide that, but we could show them third-party vendors who would then convert the documents," he says. Technology is improving for both hearing- and visually-impaired people, and fortunately for advisors, e-mail is easy. "I'm a blind-guy tech geek, and most people wouldn't get into all the kinds of things I do with my computer, but there are ways to work with them."

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