Helping Deaf Investors — The New York Times — Merrill Lynch

By CHRISTOPHER D. SULLIVAN III, vice president, Merrill Lynch Special Needs Financial Services Group.  As told to Abby Ellin   I  The New York Times - December 7, 2003

IN 1947, when I was born, medical technology was medieval at best. Clapping of the hands was a popular method in those days to test a child's hearing ability. But, as we all know, it is not very accurate. My hearing loss was "discovered" by a nurse when I was about 2 years old.

For a short time, I attended Public School 47, which happens to be the only public school for the deaf in New York City. I was mainstreamed into a Catholic school at fourth grade and, at that point, I lost touch with the deaf world until I was 36 years old.

I had my first summer job at 15 as a messenger for a shipping company, Moore-McCormack Line, in downtown Manhattan. Delivering packages and important documents for senior executives gave me a taste of the opportunities and the vibrancy that Wall Street has to offer. I immediately fell in love with the hustle and bustle environment.

In 1981, I was trying to become a chartist on the floor of the Commodities Exchange. (A chartist is someone who charts the price fluctuation of a particular commodity or stock by using x's and o's to mark each price uptick and downtick.) I enrolled at the Wall Street School of Finance to learn more about charting. My teacher was Ralph Acampora, currently the director of technical analysis at Prudential Equity Group.

Unable to understand him on my first day - he had his back to the class the whole time, writing on the blackboard - I asked him if he could tutor me privately. He saw that I was deaf and very eager to learn, and offered to tutor me for an hour each week for six months. His love for technical analysis rubbed off on me and I sort of became his disciple. I got my start at Merrill Lynch as the first deaf person to attain the position of technical analyst.

After I joined Merrill Lynch in 1987, word spread in the New York deaf community that there was someone to bug for free "hot stock tips." I became an instant celebrity - a deaf-world version of a movie star or V.I.P. One night I went out with my wife, VickiJoy, who is also deaf, to an important deaf social event. I was immediately swarmed by partygoers seeking investment advice. I quickly learned how little they knew about investments and how closed off they were to the financial world.

Six months later I drafted a proposal, and it was approved by the Merrill Lynch private client executive committee, to establish the first Deaf/Hard of Hearing Investor Service on Wall Street to provide telecommunication access for the deaf, sign language interpreters, closed captioned videotapes and hiring of deaf financial advisers.

When I'm involved in group meetings that include three or more people, a sign language interpreter is a necessity. Following the progress of the meeting through lip-reading alone is extremely stressful, especially in a fast moving exchange. It's much easier to understand the interpreter's body, arms, hands and facial expressions than reading someone's mouth at the end of the long conference table. I try to structure my own meetings to be one-on-one or with two other people; in that case, a sign language interpreter isn't needed.

If I ever become blind, I'll be in big trouble.

As told to Abby Ellin.