Deaf Broker Gives A Voice To Hearing-impaired Investors

He Aims To Bring Down The 'Berlin Wall' Isolating The Deaf And Hard-of-hearing

January 06, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Steve Hlibok of Ellicott City cannot talk, but when he gives advice,about 500 people across the country listen.

Hlibok's clients buy and sell thousands of dollars in securities on his counsel, yet most people in his office in the Equitable Center in Columbia are unable to hold a conversation with him over coffee.

The 28-year-old Merrill Lynch stock broker is deaf. His work withdeaf and hard-of-hearing clients helped inspire his corporation to launch a nationwide effort to expand the service he has provided sinceJuly 1987.

"The financial world is like a Berlin Wall. It's been very difficult for the deaf to understand what's up on Wall Street," Hlibok said in an interview conducted by typing questions and answersonto his computer screen. The terminal doubles as a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf, or TDD telephone.

The TDD displays incomingmessages and transmits Hlibok's responses to the caller's TDD screen. Hlibok uses it in tandem with a terminal on the other side of his desk that provides the latest market reports.

The terminal and a more old-fashioned TDD that prints words on a thin strip of paper are Hlibok's main link with an estimated 500 hearing-impaired clients across the nation. The description "hearing impaired" applies to both theprofoundly deaf, who are unable to hear well enough to use a telephone, and the hard-of-hearing.

Hlibok graduated from Gallaudet University, and many of his college friends, now living all over the United States, constitute part of his clientele.

But the Hlibok family's strong connections to the nation's deaf community run much deeper than school ties.

His brother, Greg, led protests in 1988 that resulted in the naming of Gallaudet University's first deaf president. His brother, Bruce, was the first deaf actor to appear in a Broadway musical.

His parents, Albert and Peggy, are deaf activists who helped push through the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law requires telephone companies to provide, by 1993, operators who can read TDD calls to hearing people.

Although it may not have the media appeal of politics or the theater, Hlibok has made the financial world his arena in the fight for rights for the deaf.

When deaf people must rely on interpreters to represent them in financial transactions, the possibilities for problems are limitless, said Hlibok.

He said he has heard of interpreters ordering 1,200 shares of a stock instead of120.

"It can be a big difference once a wrong number is executed," Hlibok says.

The intent of a deaf investor could also be misinterpreted, he says.

He cites the case of a broker who bought speculative stock, although the client wanted "a conservative income stock,"as one of the "horror stories" he has heard in the deaf community.

Another deaf Merrill Lynch employee, Christopher Sullivan, a technical analyst in Princeton, N.J., had been referring New York City-areaclients to Hlibok, but decided to take the idea a step further.

"I realized that Steve Hlibok could not physically meet the needs of all deaf people nationwide," Sullivan said. So he convinced Merrill Lynch executives to start a Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Investor Services Network.

The network was launched nationwide in February and by Augusthad a total of about 750 accounts, says Kelly Les, a Merrill Lynch marketing analyst who serves as Sullivan's assistant and interpreter. All 75 brokers serving 40 states are equipped with TDD machines and voice amplifiers.

Earlier last month, the program's toll-free number began to appear in closed captions on a Merrill Lynch TV advertisement. All of the company's TV ads are closed-captioned, Les says.

"Steve's accomplishment as a (financial consultant) made the hearing-impaired market proposal a more attractive business proposal," says Sullivan, who was recently promoted to assistant vice president because of the program.

Compliments notwithstanding, Hlibok is not totally receptive to the idea of cutting into his clientele, says ColumbiaOffice Manager Toby Pitts.

"Steve's pretty protective of his turf. . . . The problem is that Steve's turf tends to encompass about 20million inhabitants," says Pitts, referring to the number of hearing-impaired people in the country.

"It's also very true that Steve feels a great deal of responsibility to the deaf community on a coupleof levels," Pitts says.

Pitts, who has learned enough American Sign Language to communicate with Hlibok, says the young broker tries to serve the deaf community as a link to the brokerage business, as a role model for young deaf people, and as proof to hearing people thata deaf person can succeed in the business world.

Despite the nationwide effort by Merrill Lynch, Hlibok is still the only active deaf broker for Merrill Lynch. Sullivan says about 90 percent of the program's brokers are related in some way to a hearing-impaired person or the deaf community.

Sullivan says the company is training two deafpeople as brokers. In addition, Sullivan plans "to encourage office managers to hire five or six more hearing-impaired (financial consultants) through 1991."

Once the telephone relay services are in place in 1993, "it will be a real challenge for me," Hlibok says. "I willneed to spread out and work with anyone, and not just depend on the deaf community; they can choose any FCs.

"I'm not sure how the hearing-impaired department will function once the relay service is in full force."

Sullivan says the network will not change "because deaf people will still insist on communicating with their financial advisers one-on-one by TDD for reasons of confidentiality."

He asks, "Would you share your personal finances with some stranger in a relay system?"

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