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Single, deaf mother works toward dream of better life


When the axle on her car broke again last weekend, Denise Harrison grew weary — but only for the moment. She had just paid off the 1997 Grand Marquis days earlier. It's all hers. She was happy enough, even though it's a gas hog and the repairs are frustrating. That's better than taking the bus to MacDill Air Force Base, where she works cleaning offices. But while riding a city bus earlier this week, she dreamed of an easier life: a pretty house with four bedrooms in a quiet neighborhood and a new blue Jeep Liberty in the driveway, complete with a sunroof. She dreamed of a life without the struggles of being a deaf, single mother in Tampa Bay.

Before getting her job two years ago, she had applied at many stores and restaurants, she said, but no one called her back. They didn't want to take a chance on her, she guessed, because she's deaf.

Jobs for people like her don't come easy, she knows, especially not in these tight times.

People with disabilities are typically the last hired and first fired, said Jim Freyvogel, president of the MacDonald Training Center, which has for the past 20 years provided services to help people with disabilities get and keep employment.

Harrison found work through the training center, which has seen jobs dwindle in recent years.

Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget includes cuts of 15 percent to services for people who come through the training center, Freyvogel said. About 180 people there are currently looking for jobs.

Harrison, 41, lives near the University of South Florida with her two daughters and two grandchildren. Inside the door of the cramped two-bedroom apartment, shoes line a wall, starting with the baby's and ending with Harrison's. She supports the family on her part-time cleaning wage of about $10 an hour plus Social Security disability.

After she got the job on the base, she missed the city bus home twice and walked seven hours to get home — 18 miles in the rain, in the dark, in her quiet world. She ached the next day, but didn't think twice about going back to work.

She has had to prove herself all her life.

Harrison was born deaf and grew up in New York, where she graduated from the Rochester School For the Deaf. The school helped her get several jobs, including one when she was 13, filing documents at a police station, she said. The staff had to wave at her to get her to stop for breaks.

"Denise is very headstrong," said her older sister, Trudi Lawson, who suspects being hearing impaired made Harrison strong. "She doesn't let anything stand in her way."

The two sisters moved to Tampa in 1997, following their mother who had moved here in 1995. Before she found a job, Harrison lived with her mother in Tampa.

Harrison's daughters, Alyshia Espada, 18, and Elka Perez, 11, both learned to sign before speaking. Elka loves to sing and plans on making it her career. Her mother has never heard her sing. While the girls are in school, Harrison takes care of Alyshia's babies: Jalayah, 2, and Jermaine, 11 months.

In New York, Harrison says, she found more work opportunities for people like her. In Tampa, the process took awhile. Finally, Cindy Tutko, an employment specialist at MacDonald Training Center, helped Harrison get security clearances to work on the base as an employee of a janitorial service.

For deaf people, communication problems are the biggest barrier to employment, Tutko said. They don't want to be a hassle, so they often make assumptions, rather than ask for clarification about requests they don't understand.

Tutko prods them to ask away, usually in writing. If someone appears to be upset, it's better to ask, she said. Body language can be misleading. She coaches them to use phrases like: "It seems like you're mad. Is there something wrong?"

The nights Harrison walked home she had been asked to work late to clean a general's office. She didn't want to bother a supervisor by revealing the later hours would cause her to miss her bus home. It was 4 a.m. when she arrived at her front door.

After she missed her bus a second time, Tutko helped Harrison get a car through Wheels of Success, a nonprofit organization that helps needy people get vehicles. Harrison paid $50 a month for a year, plus the cost of repairs.

Some employers feel that providing accommodations for disabled people is a burden, Tutko said. But the same communication weakness in deaf people is often a strength, she said. They waste little time chatting with co-workers and can focus in audibly distracting environments.

And they are often strongly motivated to prove their ability.

For now, Harrison doesn't mind cleaning offices on the base. She said it's easy and her teammates make it fun. And she enjoys playing and laughing with her grandchildren. She has been teaching the 2-year-old sign language.

"They're good kids," she said.

Her Marquis remained at the shop this week, but Harrison planned to use money from an income tax check to have it fixed. She's hopeful that one day she'll be able to afford that Jeep.

Each time life had tried to knock her down or take away her independence, she managed to break free. This time would be no different.

"I wanted to be on my own," Harrison signed with Tutko translating. "I don't want to depend on anyone."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.

About this series

Finding Tomorrow is an occasional series about people in the Tampa area who persevere to find contentment, despite life's struggles. If you know of someone who should be featured, call us at (813) 226-3394.

Single, deaf mother works toward dream of better life 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 3:30am]
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