People with disabilities encounter scores of little man-made obstacles every day, many of which are built on the foundation of ignorance laid by the nondisabled. Two years ago, Jim and Jeanene Meisser began chipping away at one such obstacle by chartering a bank on a principal unique to such an effort: accessibility.
The bank aims to serve the estimated 31 million Americans considered deaf or hard of hearing.
Their Lake Shore Bank plan is based on the sort of employee education and one-on-one interactions that have given way to automation. The Meissers, husband and wife, envision a national presence for the bank and believe their brand will naturally widen to include accommodations for non-English speakers and the blind.
It's a lofty goal, and they've started toward it by making history.
Through Lake Shore, Jim became the country's first deaf bank president. Born profoundly deaf — meaning he's never heard a single sound — Jim, 50, spent 25 years as a bank regulator with the Chicago branch of the FDIC before leaving in 2006 to raise $20 million and plant the seeds for a bank in Sheboygan, Wis., his home state. His investment group was granted a state banking charter in 2007 and will officially open for business in the third quarter of 2008.
Jeanene, the bank's chief operating officer, who is not hearing-impaired, brings 30 years of Chicago bank management to the table. Between them, based on the Meissers' bank history research coupled with Jim's insight into progress within the deaf culture, Lake Shore is probably the first bank with a stated mission to tailor service for the deaf and hard of hearing in addition to the general population.
Scant market information exists on the niche of financial services for the deaf, which is considered a broad term encompassing sliding degrees of deafness. Neither regulatory bodies, like the FDIC and Federal Reserve, nor the National Association of the Deaf are keeping numbers of the net-worth of the millions who belong in the group.
The Meissers' due diligence confirmed there is room in the general Sheboygan market for a community bank. As for the national deaf market, they are relying a little on their gut.
"On a personal level, especially for friends who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, I've seen instances where they were not properly served or advised," Jim said. "The deaf and hard of hearing community throughout the U.S. is close knit. I personally think the market could potentially be large."
Complaints from the hearing-impaired against financial institutions start with poor customer service and end with claims of outright discrimination.
The National Association of the Deaf filed a complaint on Dec. 6, 2007, with the U.S. Department of Justice against Washington Mutual. The complaint alleges that WaMu refused to allow a deaf individual to apply for a credit card when calling through a video relay service, and that a WaMu supervisor said that the bank's policy is not to accept credit card applications made through VRS calls.
NAD asserts that this policy violates Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case is awaiting official review. WaMu did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the case is pending, assume the WaMu debacle was unintentional, even if discriminatory. Suppose that a corporate security rule, being dutifully enforced by an employee who is powerless to circumvent it, was forged without this scenario in mind. Even given this benefit of the doubt, that WaMu had not anticipated the scenario underlines the need for a bank like Lake Shore, Jim Meisser said.
"All financial services companies are under extreme pressure to contain overhead costs and increase productivity by streamlining functions — forcing customers to use electronic means," he said. "Still, most programs and processes were designed with the hearing community in mind, which creates barriers. To me, what's missing is the human interaction of being able to have a relationship with your banker, to be able to understand and ask questions about the products and be in control of your finances."
Jim's expertise in interactions requiring extra effort to forge didn't come easy. In person, instead of communicating via sign language, Jim speaks and reads lips. One quickly acclimates to his unique accent, and because of his acute lip reading, most people he meets guess he's a foreigner and not deaf.
He attributes his communication skills to his mother, Virginia Meisser, who committed herself to making Jim's life as normal as possible. After his diagnosis at age 1, Virginia set out to ensure Jim would be able to attend regular public school. Her cursory studies on the subject led to a master's degree in deaf education and more than two decades of teaching children and adults at the Milwaukee Hearing Society. Virginia died in 2004 at the age of 76.
"Learning to speak as a profoundly deaf person is difficult if not impossible," Jim said. "As I look back, it was a daunting process that took years of practice and speech therapy. I was lucky to grow up in a very positive environment with a devoted mother and patient teachers. I've always said my mother gave me life twice - when I was born and when she gave me the gift of speech."
A focus on the gift of raw communication filters into the Meissers' approach to financial services. While Internet banking revolutionized access, it does little when it comes to complicated transactions people must sit down with a lender to hash out —like a car or home mortgage. But teaching all employees sign language and lip reading isn't practical, nor is hiring a quota of deaf employees. Instead, the Meissers educate employees on the subtleties of deaf culture, introduce them to functional ways to communicate, and point out problems a hearing person might not fully recognize and probably solve ham-handedly.
"For example, I couldn't use my bank's services in a drive-up because of the intercom," Jim said. "My speech is more difficult to understand when it's amplified and the distance from the attendant makes it impossible to read lips. Even banks that claimed to offer a telephone communication device for the deaf (TDD) didn't always follow (standard TDD) speaking protocols."
Others in the deaf community agree that financial services can be problematic. Dr. Robert Harris, founder of Harris Communication, an international online and mail order superstore of hearing assistance devices and programs, attended the same speech training school in Wisconsin as Jim, although they attended at different times.
"For simple transactions, there probably aren't too many challenges if handwritten notes can be passed back and forth between the deaf and hearing person," Harris said. "Obstacles can occur when there are transactions that involve technical jargon or more detailed explanations. If a bank has not addressed how to communicate important information to a deaf person, there can be misunderstandings or a feeling by the deaf person of being slighted.
"Another obstacle can be the general attitude of the financial services representative toward a deaf person. Without deaf sensitivity training, many hearing bank employees may give poor service to the deaf person and possibly be condescending or rude. Questions may not be answered adequately or completely."
The road to profitability for any upstart bank eyeing a national market is long and without guarantees, but it was a proud day for Jim when he received an agreement from Lake Shore's first deaf investor, and the Meissers' feel they are off to a pretty good start.
In a troubled economy, new banks have the advantage of a balance sheet unencumbered by borrowers who have recently been laid off or put out of business. Conversely, new loans and raw capitol — like new deposits — can be harder to come by, and a bank running on the fumes of initial investment capital catches the eyes of regulators.
According to the FDIC, of the 32 banks that it closed between Jan. 1, 2000, and today, four were 12 years old or fewer. Acquisition, however, is responsible for most dissolved new charters. Of the 1,150 banks chartered since 2000, 120 have been folded into other institutions. A company might sell a de novofor a number of compelling reasons, and avoiding failure is among them. Regardless, the acquired bank's unique service culture will be replaced by that of the purchaser.
"Jim likes to tell people he's never heard the word no," Jeanene said. "When he says this to investors, they might think it's just a clever ice breaker, but they learn we are extremely committed to making Lake Shore work in a way no other bank does, and if they turn him down they hear from us again."