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Tampa woman is deaf, nearly blind, with will of Superwoman

TAMPA — When you see her, if you see her, she is waiting for the bus, smoking a cigarette with one hand and holding a white cane in the other.

She walks briskly along sidewalks and through parking lots, moving the cane in a figure eight, gliding its rounded plastic tip over bumps and cracks. Stopping when she senses something isn't right.

Her world is what she sees through two small holes the size of tightly rolled dollar bills. Born deaf, she hears none of it — not the bus, the cars, the slamming doors — though she savors the vibrations.

She prefers to keep her name to herself. Call her Superwoman, she says.

Superwoman is 40.

She has steady hazel eyes and perfect makeup.

She lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment with pink curtains, a doorbell that triggers flashing lights and a vibrating alarm clock that, at 5 a.m. each day, shakes her bed to nudge her from sleep.

Her routine is everything, her life measured by momentum. There is little time to dwell on distractions. Her forward movement is her comfort.

She is private, proud, precise, stubborn, determined and meticulous. She has a sense of humor, sometimes hidden by her essential need to focus.

She asks little from the world around her, only that it stays out of her way.

The day before Valentine's Day, while waiting for one of two buses she takes to work, she was snatched off the street by a man in a car. She fought her way out and ran to a gas station for help. She scribbled her plea on the notebook she always carries.

I almost got abducted, she wrote.

Within minutes, police arrived and her suspect was cuffed. He had two knives tucked in his driver's side door and a club wrapped in duct tape stuffed under his seat. She stood inches from his face to identify him.

She's glad it happened to her and not someone more vulnerable.

She speaks no more of it. She sees no reason.

"It's sealed," she writes. "Move on."

• • •

Her condition, Usher's Syndrome, is genetic and rare. It causes deafness from birth and gradually robs a person of vision. Both parents must be genetic carriers and both must pass on that mutated gene, experts say, though she knows of no relatives who were deaf or blind.

Superwoman started off seeing life through a box, missing all that happened at the edges. Over time, the box narrowed. Now, it's like a tunnel.

Though she can speak, she worries most people can't understand her. So, when someone touches her she might respond with, "Mm-Kay." But she's more likely to pull out her black marker and tiny note pad.

To the Publix deli clerk: Six fried chicken breasts.

To the reporter spending a day with her: Are you ready to go?

• • •

She sets out at 6:30 a.m. each day, walking across two busy intersections.

As cars breeze by, she feels their rumble and stares up the street until she spots the orange lights that scroll across the tops of HART buses.

She taps out the cigarette with the tip of her white cane, steps forward and boards.

She watches out the front of the bus for landmarks signaling her stop. On the way to work, it's a giant Borders sign. On the way home, it's a billboard that she can't make out.

She navigates public spaces through a mix of memory and practice.

She doesn't count steps. She explores and visualizes the terrain, keeping watch for brake lights in parking lots. When routines, like bus routes, change, she walks them days ahead of time. She and her foldable cane —which she calls "my baby" — become one.

"It's like something sends the message to my white cane and it transmits to my hand and it then sends to my brain," she explains. "I am so used to knowing what's on the ground and when I get near to the curb, I know it's there."

For fun, she races up and down escalators.

Her pet peeves: discarded shopping carts, seasonal store displays, drivers who don't look and stop.

When a storm hits, it's never completely over for Superwoman. There is always debris.

• • •

A doctor diagnosed her when she was 13. But she didn't begin to understand until she was 30. The catcher in a friendly softball game complained she didn't respond to his signals.

She was overwhelmed but determined to cope. Back then, she lived in Cleveland. She had a daughter and a failed marriage and memories of a difficult youth. It's behind her now.

"Move on," she says, again.

She came to Florida in 1997, seeking more independence and a clean break.

She lived with a girlfriend in Lakeland for a few months. The state's Division of Blind Services referred her to the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults in New York, where she spent a year learning how to use a cane, read Braille, shop, use a computer, balance a budget, clean and cook.

"So I will be prepared when I become totally blind," she said.

She moved back to Tampa afterward and found work, first for a travel agency and then using a sewing machine at Lighthouse for the Blind. She doesn't want to draw attention to her current job, where she has worked for seven years.

She stands eight hours under fluorescent lights, packaging toll road passes in plastic for people who drive.

She arrives early and doesn't gossip. She's known as a careful worker. She turns out the lights, the last to leave.

And when she leaves, she keeps to herself. Eyes forward, cane swiping, fast walking, always alert.

She was hit by a car four times between 2003 and 2005. Each time, her injuries were minor and she called for the driver to alert police. But she never halted her routine.

Her retreat is home. She sits on her pink couch surrounded by her walls decorated with pink roses and the pink latch-hook rugs she made. She can see color.

She chats with friends on a 42-inch computer screen with jumbo text. It doubles as her television. "Super Puter," she calls it.

Here, her life is neat. She cleans the counters with Clorox wipes. She sorts her change. She slices a bell pepper with a sharp knife. She pours herself a tall glass of caffeine free Diet Coke. She sticks her finger in the foam.

When it storms outside, she pulls her sheets over her head and feels the thunder vibrations.

And sometimes, after a day's silence, she talks to herself alone in her house, releasing the bottled up words she hasn't spoken.

Even if no one hears, it helps to speak, she says.

• • •

The day it happened, after she identified her attacker by lowering her head to his face and placing her hands on his hands, police said she collapsed in tears in the arms of a detective.

That afternoon, she sat with her co-workers discussing what she calls the "event."

Four to five other people packed the tiny room. She used her hands to tell the story.

She paused. She hung her head, then raised it.

"God," she signed, "thanks for giving me the strength and the courage to save my life today."

Her suspect was in jail, where he remains on charges of false imprisonment and lewd and lascivious molestation of a disabled person.

She knew she had to put it all behind her.

She had a life to live, and it was already challenging enough.

There were two choices, the way she saw it.

"Fall apart?" she motioned. "Or back to normal?"

"Stupid question," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

About the story

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello and "Superwoman" first got in touch over the phone using a TTY and a Telecommunications Relay Service, a special service that lets people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired use the telephone to communicate, using typed messages and a go-between operator who reads the messages aloud. At their first meeting, the subject enlisted a friend and professional sign language interpretor to help tell her story. When Catalanello shadowed her for the day, the two of them messaged back and forth using a computer and hand-written notes. All of the follow-up and fact-checking was through e-mail.

Tampa woman is deaf, nearly blind, with will of Superwoman 03/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 11:43am]

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