TAMPA — Patti Sánchez has worked as an auditor and an accountant for banks and other companies, but her goal always was to help other people like her find a place in the business world.
Sanchez was 7 when she lost her hearing to complications from measles and a high fever that she suffered when she was 3. Deafness turned the outside world silent for her, but over time, and with the support of her mother, she learned it need not hold her back.
"She told me I could overcome everything, and I think that's the way it was," Sanchez said. "She never thought that my condition made me special or different,"
Now, Sánchez teaches those life lessons as a labor consultant, counselor and guide for deaf people who are seeking employment in the Tampa area. She holds the position of inclusion specialist at the MacDonald Training Center, a private, nonprofit organization established in Tampa in 1953 to help people with disabilities of all kinds.
She helps people develop resumes and prepare for job interviews, and she meets with potential employers to show them why they should consider hiring deaf people. In all she does, she works to show that deaf people have more to offer than many people believe.
"I want to guide people who are deaf to reach what they want," Sanchez said. "But at the same time, it's important to educate employers because there must be opportunities. In that sense, I feel proud to work for that door to open."
Sanchez speaks English, American Sign Language and Spanish, the language of her Puerto Rican heritage. To communicate her message during one-on-one meetings, she reads lips and interprets gestures.
"We use our hands, but also our eyes, which are like our ears."
Sanchez uses a text-voice device when communicating by phone, and she has mastered the tools of the Internet — a powerful way for her to make contacts inside and outside the state.
Sánchez, 54, graduated with a business degree from St. Francis College, New York, studied professional development and accounting at the University of Puerto Rico, and has a master's in business administration from the University of Phoenix in Tampa.
"When I give my business card, many people are surprised to see that I have a master's degree," she said. "Why? We are human and we are not different."
Sanchez teaches free American Sign Language classes at night at several locations in Hillsborough County, just one of the reasons her daughter, 18-year-old Imara Torres, sees her as an inspiration.
"My mother has always been an open-minded, hard-working woman," said Torres, who soon will graduate from high school. "It has educated me to be a better person and above all be able to value myself for who I am. That is the best lesson."
Dawn Squitieri, who is deaf and works in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office, collaborates with Sanchez in her sign language classes. Squitieri called Sánchez a motivating figure, saying she is always at the forefront in promoting job opportunities and community integration events.
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"We have in common that we love to help people who are deaf and hard of hearing," Squitieri said. "We grew up in New York and we are always supporting our community."
Rosa Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican who works as coordinator of the Literacy Program for the deaf in the Pinellas Public Library, values Sánchez's dedication to helping deaf people achieve.
"There are none like her," said Rosa, who has been with the library for more than two decades. "She is always helping people and organizing initiatives for the community."
Contact Juan Carlos Chavez at email@example.com