How Advisors with Hearing Disabilities Inspire

SigningOriginally published in FSIVoice.

Regardless of market cycles, shifting demographics or changes in technology, there remains no more powerful driver in helping a client realize his or her financial goals — and overcome the challenges that may stand in the way — than a committed advisor with the perspective and dedication to play a meaningful role in the client’s life. Kramer Financial in Frederick, Md., epitomizes this goal of being that meaningful influence in their clients’ lives.

Kramer Financial is one of the few advisory practices in the country — and the only one licensed in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the firm — that caters to the deaf community. The firm’s commitment to the deaf community stems from common experience: all of its advisors are deaf, as well. This shared background with their clients has made Kramer Financial’s professionals keenly aware of the difficulties facing deaf investors, and contributed to the firm’s dedication to helping each client receive the support and advice they need to achieve their financial goals.

Lee Kramer founded the practice in 1985, when he was affiliated with an insurance company. As the demand for his services began to grow, he was joined by Dave Frank in 1998, and later by Stephanie Summers and Danny Lacey. Mr. Lacey expanded the firm’s footprint west to Austin, TX.

Today, Kramer Financial serves clients coast to coast, approximately 70 percent of whom are members of the deaf community. Due to Kramer Financial’s extensive expertise and sterling reputation within the industry, it also serves a broad range of hearing clients across the country.

Growing up in a deaf family, Mr. Kramer said he realized early on that neither his parents nor many of their deaf friends knew much about investing. To a large degree, the problem still persists today.

“Many deaf investors typically do not have a full appreciation of their investments or what they are trying to accomplish,” Mr. Kramer said.

Although financial data generally has become more accessible than ever before, deaf investors continue to face a steep language barrier that makes the challenges facing most investors — lack of time, lack of financial expertise, and others — even more daunting.

Mr. Kramer recalled sitting down for the first time with a deaf client who described herself as a conservative investor during their initial conversation. Once he looked at her investment statements, however, he discovered that her previous advisor had positioned all her money in high-risk commodities.

Ms. Summers had similar experience involving a 17-year veteran of the United States Postal Service. He came to her wondering why one of his co-workers — who had been with the Post Office for a much shorter length of time — had made more progress in growing his retirement account than he had. A look at the client’s statements revealed the answer: He was fully invested in T-bills and short-term cash equivalents.

In each of these cases, the investors did not have clear understanding of their investments, and were simply unaware that there were better options available given their objectives.

In an effort to combat the problem and boost financial literacy within the deaf community, Kramer Financial stages financial and retirement planning workshops around the country. While these sessions are no doubt helpful for business development, they also serve a larger purpose.

“We feel like we have a responsibility to enhance and broaden the level of financial information that is available to the deaf community,” Mr. Frank said.

This sense of responsibility extends beyond the workplace, as each member of the firm is an active member of the community, giving their time to various national nonprofit and volunteer organizations benefiting deaf causes.

Additionally, the firm has a culture of achievement that has laid a trailblazing path for other deaf professionals in the financial services industry. All of Kramer Financial’s advisors hold advanced degrees, and Mr. Frank was the first deaf financial advisor to receive a doctorate. Ms. Summers is the first deaf woman in the United States to hold a Series 7 securities license.

“Deaf people can do whatever they want,” Mr. Kramer said, echoing the former president of Gallaudet University, I. King Jordan, who famously told a reporter upon assuming his post in 1988, “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.”

Another element that sets Kramer Financial apart is its accessibility to the entire deaf community. Deaf investors rely on several distinct modes of communication and often experience different levels of hearing loss, requiring a broad range of specialization for the financial professionals that serve this community.

All four of Kramer Financial’s advisors have the ability to meet the communication needs of every client, whether it’s via English, lip reading, American Sign Language or another visual language. Having that level of accessibility is important. “Our clients are very engaged in building their own plans, whereas in the past they were more passive due to the gap in communication,” Ms. Summers said.

As longtime FSI members, Kramer Financial is highly sensitive to the regulatory environment and how it impacts their ability to serve clients effectively. And though the firm understands the need to protect investors, the sheer number of new regulations is making it harder and harder to run a business, Mr. Kramer said. Also, he said the firm’s experience in serving the deaf community is a clear demonstration that regulators need to show greater flexibility.

“In serving a community that has a unique set of needs, we are perhaps more aware than most that every investor is different,” Mr. Kramer said. “Our clients rely on us to tailor financial plans that specifically meet their individual needs. We really appreciate what FSI has done to protect our ability to do that.”

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