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.

23 Comments

    1. Yes, it was a big, public celebration for Jose — and a few people asked me about VESID and Janna’s role in his amazing recovery from slavery and ultimate job rehabilitation.

      I decided to write this article to share the truth as I know it and to fill in a few important missing niches in the NYTimes article.

  1. Thak you David for this post! I am writing on behalf of Fedcap, Jose’s employer. You are very right that the wonderful Times article did leave out critical parts to the story. I think Jim Dwyer would need to write a novel on this one becasue so many great people and organizations were involved in –and continue to contribute to — Jose’s success! Fedcap and VESID have a great partnership in helping people with disabilities and barriers train for and find employment. Fedcap’s employment outcomes would not be the same without the caring concern that the clients we share get from Janna and all of her colleagues at VESID. Jose’s story was also picked up by the CBS Evening News and Televisia (Mexican TV). We are gathering clips and posting them on Fedcap’s You Tube site (http://www.youtube.com/user/fedcaprehabilitation). I was there for the filming and can attest to the fact that Jose in every interview profusely thanked everyone at VESID, Lexington, and Fedcap. Most of this was edited out. But Jose remembers, is deeply grateful, and posts like this give credit to the unsung heroes that are often left out of these stories.

    1. Hi Jennifer —

      Thank you for stepping forward as a Fedcap representative to give VESID credit in Jose’s rehabilitation. It’s been a curious process reading and watching this story unfold in the Press and having his entire success publicly attributed to Fedcap alone. Without VESID’s initial intervention, there is no Fedcap success for Jose.

      I don’t think Jim Dwyer of the NY Times needed to write a novel, but he did need to get the timeline straight. His article made it appear it was Jose’s girlfriend who got him rolling in the direction of Fedcap:

      “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.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/nyregion/23about.html

      The CBS News piece only had a videotaped snippet with a Fedcap official:

      “He set out to work every day, support his family, and he did what he needed to do to get the job,” a spokeswoman for Fedcap said.

      http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/07/05/eveningnews/main6649159.shtml

      Was Fedcap the only rehabilitation source invited to be interviewed on videotape for that CBS News story?

      If Jose is really thanking VESID as profusely as you say in his interviews — then something is being significantly lost in the interpreted translation — because no good and worthy journalist would categorically ignore such vital, linchpin, information in Jose’s storyline and one would think a Deaf VESID Rehab counselor helping a Deaf consumer find rehabilitation and employment success at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island would be too important not to mention at all.

  2. To give you some more context, CBS filmed Jose at his job site for about five hours for what turned out to be a very brief segment. Much of his story went untold!

    Fedcap and the federal AbilityOne Program honored Jose at our 2010 graduation ceremony with the Usdane Award — given annually to an individual with a severe disability who has exhibited outstanding achievement and exceptional character.

    We also honored a VESID Counseler, Iris Allen, at the same ceremony, with Fedcap’s annual Award for Excellence in Vocational Rehabilitation. I believe Ms. Allen also works at the Queens VESID Office.

    I would encourage you and all of your readers to write a letter to the editor at the Times and comment on the CBS segment telling the rest of this story! It deserves to be told in its entirety.

    1. I appreciate your follow-up comment, Jennifer.

      I have worked in radio and television and film for many years, and I know you have to get a lot of coverage to create a small story. Usually, though, the proper timeline shines through even in a severe edit — if there’s proper coverage to begin with — because that’s the necessary structure of the story. If there’s a major support missing, the entire story collapses into itself.

      When Jim Dwyer’s article first appeared, I sent him an email via the NYTimes contact form. I praised his excellent writing style, and I was caught up in the hype over Jose’s publicized success. I did not receive a reply from Mr. Dwyer and I did not expect one.

      Then I read Dwyer’s article several more times in the clearer light of an editorial eye — and saw several holes that struck me as strange — and that’s what prompted me to try to enhance his article with this article that, perhaps, fills in more of the initial pathstones that paved the way for Jose’s success.

      I am pleased you found this story and decided to go on-the-record and comment. That means a lot and it helps a lot and I thank you.

  3. I am a bit bothered by this article as I have seen a much different atmosphere at the harlem office. I, too am disabled and a ward of vesid, however, this office, all the great scores I have on my tests- still seek to dissuade me from the training which my passion lies.
    I was never told the things this office is now telling me. I now see how many people who sign on become disillusioned and fall back in their previous life of doubt, lack of hope and the lonely, loveless world of imprisonment on many levels. I am now seeking to find another program as I have seen enough of vesid and its epmpty promises that become all the more empty once they get you on their books. Does anyone out there have any info for me to find a similar program?