Word of mouth brings deaf taxman brisk business

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A Southland tax preparer sets up shop at a Starbucks in Norwalk and relies on the sign-language grapevine to draw in deaf and hard of hearing customers.

Gary Jacobson is passionate about helping deaf and hard of hearing people prepare their taxes. But instead of spending money on advertising, the 60-year-old accountant sets up a daylong clinic at a Starbucks in Norwalk.

“Nothing saved," Jacobson says to a client. "Not that much difference – $945.”

He's unpacked his laptop, mouse, and a portable printer the size of a stapler at a window table toward the back of the coffee shop. Jacobson was born hearing-impaired. As a child, he learned how to read lips and speak. Tax preparation is his full-time job now.

“Gary is honest," says Renee Thomas. "Not only that, he explains why they're not getting a refund, or why they're paying, in American Sign language."

Which is their language, says Thomas. She was a toddler when she lost her hearing. She also learned how to speak and read lips during childhood. She says she and her husband Matthew are part of a tight-knit deaf community in the Southland and she knows plenty of people that hearing tax-preparers have ripped off.

“Same thing when ladies take their car for repair at car shop and then the man knows that the women know nothing about it. 'Oh, that was a lot of work. It's going to be $300. OK, OK, fine.' Same idea with taxes,” said Thomas.

Thomas says she and her husband have relied exclusively on Gary Jacobson since she discovered him 10 years ago. This year, she made video phone calls and sent dozens of text messages to tell people where Gary Jacobson was setting up and what he charges compared to other tax preparers.

“I say, ‘Why don’t you try the deaf taxman?’" says Thomas. "And they say, ‘What? That’s all? Only $35. Last year, I paid $300 at...’”

Those referrals are paying off. Jacobson says his client list is approaching 1,300 and most of them can hear.

"There were too many people out there that did not know what to do," says Jacobson. "They needed someone to explain things to them why and how things are done."

Jacobson says this is the third time he’s made the trek from his San Fernando Valley office to this Starbucks. It’s close and he says the setting offers a comfortable place for his deaf clients to socialize and kill time while they wait their turn. He makes similar arrangements with his hearing clientele.

Jacobson credits modern technology - smart and text telephones, video conferencing and the Internet – for allowing deaf people to minimize what they can’t do.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that text messaging via wireless cell phones has better connected deaf people with the speaking world they live in.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), a trade group that represents U.S. wireless carriers and manufacturers, total reported wireless subscribers as of June, 2009 was 276.6 million. The number of smart phone and personal digital assistants (PDAs) users was 40.7 million (nearly doubled from 2008).

There's no concrete way to know how many wireless users are deaf or hard of hearing. But the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies at Georgia Institute of Technology started conducting a convenient sample in 2001 to track wireless device usage within the deaf and hard of hearing community.

About 1800 deaf or hard of hearing people have taken the survey to date. These charts illustrate their answers to two questions.

The following two charts were provided by the Wireless RERC, the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies. www.wirelessrerc.org

In 2001, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education funded the Wireless RERC, the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies.

It's located at the Center for Advanced Communications Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology. The survey is based on a non-randomized population sample. Consequently, sampling error is likely greater than for a randomized sample. About 1800 participants have taken the survey.

The Wireless RERC is sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education under grant number H133E060061. The opinions contained in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or NIDRR.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing data on this chart were extrapolated from a Gallaudet University model-based estimate collected in June, 2004. That study referred back to 1994-95 U.S. Census data for general population.

The U.S. Census hasn't counted deaf people since 1930. According to Gallaudet University, the last census of America's deaf population was privately conducted in 1971. This is the latest information available about the deaf community.

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