Jim Dwyer of the New York Times recently wrote an article about Jose Gutierrez — a Deaf man enslaved by other Deaf people — who was able to clamber out of his slavery and into a high paying janitorial job at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Here is the great image from the NYTimes article of Jose and his family:
Mr. Gutierrez, 17 at the time that the slavery ring was broken up, went to the Lexington School for the Deaf. “The support I got there was wonderful,” he said, and he also fell in love with another student, Christina Gonzalez, who was born in the United States. “I had no family here; her family has been so good to me.”
She pointed him to Fedcap, which provides training and employment for people with disabilities. In 2007, Fedcap sent him to work on Liberty and Ellis Islands under a janitorial services contract administered by AbilityOne, a federal program. He makes $20 an hour plus benefits, and now has a green card.
There is one thing grievously missing from Dwyer’s article, and that is the roles VESID — Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities — and the Great State of New York played in Jose Gutierrez’s rehabilitation.
I know about that gap in the story because I am married to the bridge that gave Jose his foot up and let him walk back into the real world — and her name is Janna M. Sweenie.
Janna is a vocational rehabilitation counselor for New York State in the VESID Queens District Office. Janna works for the Deaf Unit and she is the one who helped plan, and pay for, Jose’s rehabilitation and transition into a job.
Janna, like Jose, is Deaf — and she finds great satisfaction in stories like Jose’s — because not every rehabilitation case succeeds despite her best efforts, and not every job placement gets covered in the New York Times.
Janna’s job is measured in the small, anonymous, triumphs like when her consumers graduate from high school or get a minimum wage job. She finds joy in helping blur the line between “disabled” and “average” and “discrimination.” Janna, like all VESID rehabilitation counselors, fight when the underdog cannot.
Sometimes, a single rehab can take years to happen after several trials and errors. You never give up. You find another way. You keep moving to press forward a consumer placement success.
Janna was the epicenter of Jose’s rehabilitation. She provided the linchpin plan of service for him, and his family, and made sure interpreters and other agencies in the chain were involved, staked, attentive, and paid.
Jose Gutierrez’s success is Janna M. Sweenie’s success but, of course, she’d never tell you that — because she’s humble and dedicated and she has a hundred other consumers just like Jose, with their own hard luck story and want for a job — and they’re all falling for her attention, dedication, and service, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
Sometimes big government works and actually comes to the rescue of the disabled and the put-upon as it should — and a plan finds success in the end for everyone involved in the rehabilitation chain — and we all need to remember there are quieter stories that have just as much resonance and reverence as Jose’s, but not quite as much national exposure on a public stage.