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How Advisers Can Work With Deaf Clients

Adviser Voices: Lee Kramer, managing partner of Kramer Wealth Managers, says advisers who take the time to bridge the communication gap with deaf clients can offer valuable support for the underserved community.

Lee Kramer is managing partner of Kramer Wealth Managers in Frederick, Md. Voices is an occasional feature of edited excerpts in which wealth managers address issues of interest to the advisory community. As told to Jacob Meade via interpreter Lisa Dewing.

Mr. Kramer ... From a deaf client’s perspective, communicating through the same interpreter each time can alleviate concerns about privacy.Photo: Kurt Holter

Since getting my start in the mid-1980s, I have made it my mission to work with and help other deaf individuals with their finances. But today the deaf community at large remains underserved when it comes to accessing financial guidance, since there are still few other advisers (hearing or non-hearing) who cater to this group. Advisers can offer valuable support to deaf individuals by better understanding the intricacies of working with these clients.

Culturally, most deaf people don’t view themselves as having a disability so much as depending on a different mode of communication. But by virtue of our hearing loss, the government qualifies us for disability benefits that advisers should be aware of as part of planning. Two major benefits relate to Social Security and Medicaid. Deaf retirees can claim Social Security Disability income before reaching full retirement age, so that’s a key strategy to consider if your client leaves the workforce early. And Medicaid allows parents to make unlimited gifts and transfers to deaf adult children without being subject to the five-year “lookback,” so advisers should be versed in that option as well.

Advisers should be mindful that many deaf people consider American Sign Language, not spoken English, to be their first language. Because direct communication is typically best in adviser-client relationships, building fluency in sign language is the ideal (just as the best way to interact with, say, a Russian client is in Russian). Advisers who aren’t fluent in sign language should plan to lean on email and other written communication with these clients, but holding an entire financial-planning discussion via email can be difficult. The best solution, then, is to communicate through a sign-language interpreter.

The Federal Communications Commission provides sign-language interpreting through free video relay services, in which a deaf person can connect by video to a remote interpreter who then facilitates your conversation by phone. But there’s often a lag time associated with this option that makes it less than ideal.

For advisers who want to better engage with deaf clients, I suggest contracting regular help from a certified interpreter. Working with the same interpreter each meeting helps you communicate more smoothly and prevent misunderstanding, as that person becomes more familiar with the context and financial terminology of your practice.

And from the client’s perspective, communicating through the same interpreter each time can alleviate their concerns about privacy, since in many cases they will be sharing financial data and other personal information with you. By understanding and adapting to this concern, advisers can make deaf clients more comfortable while giving them important access to financial services in their own language.

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