While posted up at a Starbucks, editing another story on deadline, I noticed a handmade sign over a window table across the room. A hearing-impaired man was offering tax services. I went over, introduced myself, and discovered the power of this tight-knit community.
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.