So ASL doesn't have enough signs to effectively communicate? James Rooney hadn't planned on carving out a niche working with deaf clients. But nearly 30 years after his first encounter with a deaf client, he has become Morgan Stanley's go-to adviser for this unique community of clients. "The firm has given me a special designation and if a deaf client were to walk into any Morgan Stanley office anywhere in the country, they will find me," he said.
Mr. Rooney, who is based in West Hartford, Conn., and has been an adviser at Morgan Stanley for 20 years, was with Merrill Lynch in Long Island, N. Y., in the early 1990s when he noticed the receptionist struggling to communicate with a deaf client. "I walked over and started talking to the person in sign language," Mr. Rooney recalls. "Within six months, I probably got a dozen or more unsolicited walk-in deaf clients."
Mr. Rooney, who now has 225 deaf clients, learned sign language as a child growing up in a household with two deaf parents. Even though he and his team also work with about 1,000 other clients without hearing impairments, he considers his work with deaf clients as a "way to honour my parents." "I have grown my client base of deaf people every year and it's mostly word-of-mouth referrals," he said.
There are an estimated 2.2 million deaf people living in the United States, a number that is shrinking as a result of medical and technological advancements. But financial advisers who work with one or several deaf clients uniformly agree that it is an underserved market.
It was less than two years ago that wealth adviser Matthew Phillips had his first encounter with a deaf prospective client who emailed him at Trilogy Financial and closed with the explanation, "we are deaf."
Mr. Phillips, who had studied sign language in college but didn't consider himself fluent, wasn't sure how to proceed. "I reached out to our team to ask how we should handle this, and nobody had any idea," he said. "I started to realize no one at Trilogy [which has 250 advisers in 10 offices] has dealt with this before." Mr. Phillips, who now works with 20 deaf clients, contacted his former sign language instructor at California Baptist University for some advice. The instructor, W. Daniel Blair, organized a tutorial for a half dozen Trilogy advisers. And on June 20, Mr. Phillips and Mr. Blair are hosting a workshop for deaf families at the college.
One of the challenges when it comes to providing financial advice to a deaf person is clear communication. With technology and creative determination, the communication can be managed even if the adviser isn't fluent in sign language. But even being fluent is sign language doesn't guarantee perfect communication. "There's so much in the financial world that doesn't exist in sign language," Mr. Blair said. Not only does sign language differ by region, similar to regional accents, but he said some words just don't exist in sign language.