Years before government programs were enacted to help the handicapped either in education or in the workplace, native-born Dallasite, Tracy Groller, was declared profoundly hearing impaired -- legally deaf. With no mandated government provisions made for his disability and in spite of being mainstreamed in school and later as a mere teenager in the workplace at Dallas' Texas Instruments, Tracy's personal tenacity and fortitude to move forward against almost insurmountable odds enabled him to climb a success ladder that rivals many high achievers.
Along the way, Tracy overcame multiple challenges so varied he could easily be the poster child for any political persuasion and many support groups. Though his education and career success is an ideal conservative hallmark of self-reliance and less government dependency, Tracy's adult battle with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma followed by a financial necessity to forego a cochlear implant makes a poignant case for the liberal position to eliminate lifetime limits on health insurance.
Recently, with a long-awaited and hard-won pension tenure in sight, Tracy lost his job and health insurance. One of many? Consider this: Tracy was unemployed, and although his speech provides no clue -- he is legally deaf, unable to make telephone interviews, a cancer survivor, mid-forties, had a wealth of experience but no degree in a highly specialized technological field and now he had been stripped of a pay-scale that made potential employers immediately think "over-qualified". He had a family to support - but who would hire him?
This is the full-length, never before told, account of how Tracy has faced adversity, time and time again -- and triumphed.
Footsteps: "What's that sound?" Tracy asked, pausing, blue eyes full of wonder. His mom listened, but she heard nothing unusual.Off they went, but again the eight-year-old stopped his mom, "Shhh, listen, and maybe you'll hear them now."
"It only happens when we are walking. It sounds like this feels," whispered Tracy stomping his feet in place in the halls of the hearing center.His mom choked as Tracy demonstrated the reality of what was meant by "profound hearing loss". Tracy, just fitted with his first hearing aid -- couldn't identify the sound of his own footsteps.
He's Spoiled: Since Tracy was four years old, a score of hearing specialists had parroted, "Your son is spoiled, he hears just fine." Now Tracy was eight years old.
Relating Tracy's history of chronic earaches since infancy, ear tubes, round after round of antibiotics, raging fevers, chronic and excruciatingly painful ear and salivary gland infections, his mom insisted to yet another new physician that the specialists who claimed her son could hear were wrong.
She reiterated their explanations that the tests they had given him were of such high decibels that the sound would travel from the electronics all the way around his head, to the other ear. She added a direct quote from the last hearing center, "Tracy would have to be stone deaf not to hear them."
Finally, she pleaded with the otolaryngologist to believe in Tracy, "I'm not a specialist, but as Tracy's mom, I know they are missing something. I believe my son when he says he didn't hear me. Tracy isn't ignoring anyone. Tracy isn't spoiled. Tracy can't hear!"
Tracy warmed to the doctor's engaging questions, chattering like a magpie. His excellent speech told the doctor that even if Tracy couldn't hear now, sometimes during his young life, he had heard enough to learn to talk.
There were no electronics in this doctor's first test. After taking time to form a good rapport with Tracy, he simply asked Tracy to turn his back but to speak up when he heard the doctor clap his hands. The doctor moved nearer and nearer, clapping louder and louder. There was no response from Tracy. None.
Diagnosis - Profoundly hearing impaired: A grave diagnosis was gentled with prophetic comfort, "You have a gifted little boy with a profound hearing loss. He outsmarted all of the other specialists because he speaks so well. He has taught himself to read lips with a superiority that most teachers of the deaf only dream their students might accomplish. Don't fear for him, the only thing Tracy can't do -- is hear."
With no hearing at all in one ear, a hearing aid on the other could help alert Tracy when someone made a sound near him but, unfortunately, Tracy still couldn't actually understand language. The aid helped his lip reading ability enormously even as its presence confused many into thinking that he could understand them. Deafness has long been considered the invisible impairment.
Educational mainstreaming was the single option open because Tracy's diagnosis was made four years before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted by Congress in 1975. By the time EHA went into effect, Tracy was doing so well in the sixth grade that only speech therapy was added -- a nod to his deafness. To help compensate, teachers had encouraged Tracy to rivet his attention on visual cues, learn to rely on what he read, to teach himself. These skills carried Tracy right on into high school and so far beyond.
Tracy's ability to read lips grew astonishingly stronger as his hearing grew progressively worse. Uncomplaining, Tracy enjoyed all of the trappings of hearing teens, including friends and after-school jobs which enabled him to save money to buy his first Apple computer and his first car.
From the time Tracy was in the first grade, in school and on organized teams, Tracy participated in all of the mainstream sports, including baseball, basketball, football and soccer. Though his coaches never discriminated against Tracy because of his deafness, neither did they cater to it - their expectations were the same for Tracy as for the other players. Tracy collected a roomful of cross-country track trophies, and as a testament to how important sports are to the handicapped, Tracy urges parents to "Get your kid in sports, if possible, and stand back and cheer as they learn to prove they've got what it takes to be winners."
Tracy goes to work: Graduating from high school just short of his 17th birthday, Tracy enrolled in community college, excelling in computer classes and still relying upon his ability to read lips. When TI scoured local campuses seeking bright young students for recruitment, Tracy, supported by glowing referrals from his instructor, was plucked from the classroom. Intensive training for Tracy's lifetime career soon began in earnest.
The working culture of the early eighties wasn't easy for handicapped employees. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) wouldn't become law until 1990; so, in spite of being a legally deaf teenager, Tracy was again mainstreamed. He was grateful for the opportunity to immerse his energy in an adult environment, surrounded by his first love, computers.
Tracy still remembers the early days of working, commenting, "It was tough, really tough. I felt the pressure was intense." Tracy's supervisors and co-workers soon realized it was vital that they look at him when speaking so Tracy could read their lips. Since all communication had to be in person, Tracy couldn't participate in conference calls and group discussions were difficult. The stress was unrelenting and Tracy felt his performance, and thus his job, was always on the line.
In spite of overwhelming obstacles, Tracy succeeded. His unyielding determination and hard work ethic was rewarded by a succession of steady promotions until his job description included, "requires PHD in engineering or Masters with twelve years of experience". His name was included on an important TI patent. Tracy began to breathe easier.
Diagnosis - Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma: Then, the unthinkable happened. At 27, Tracy was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- the last stage. Doctors looked at this young man, who had already struggled to accomplish so much more than many with less challenges, and vowed, "He's young, strong and has a lot to live for, we're going for it," warning, "This will be a "kill or cure" treatment."
His close-knit work group rallied and closed ranks around Tracy offering support. Once when the entire group crowded into his hospital room, a young engineer became so overcome by the sight of all the tubes and lines connected to Tracy that he keeled over in a dead faint.
After coming out of major exploratory surgery packed in ice due to a raging fever, six weeks of touch-and-go intensive care plus nine months of twice-weekly chemotherapy treatments his doctors described as "near-lethal," Tracy was pronounced cancer-free. He weighed less than 90 pounds when he and his family celebrated his life and death victory. His scant remaining hearing seemed to have diminished even more. Doctors acknowledged that, yes, the chemicals could account for it.
Tracy slowly rebuilt his strength, was welcomed back to work, married and fathered a beautiful son whose voice he longed to hear. Learning he qualified as a cochlear implant candidate, Tracy was elated; until he realized his health insurance had life limitations. Cochlear implants now cost approximately $80,000, according to Esther Kelly of the Deaf Action Center in Dallas.
So much had already been spent that Tracy was afraid to risk the lifetime limits. Concerned that he would desperately need his health insurance if the cancer returned, he felt forced by the life limitations to give up all hopes of the cochlear implant and the miracle it might have made to his life. Accepting that, for him, his only chance to hear was lost forever hurt enough that Tracy couldn't quite shrug; but after all, the main thing was - he had survived cancer.
Tracy loses his job: As an ultimate measure of his success at TI, Tracy was now a salaried employee. Even better, he was only months away from a TI tenure of nearly 28 years, a goal, that once reached would assure him of a wonderful pension upon retirement. One would think that because of his handicap, Tracy would fall within a protected quota of handicapped employees and escape a lay-off. Instead, the whole division was shut-down. Tracy lost his job.
Dismal months of job searches yielded nothing. Tracy took the first job offered as a contract employee for the same company that laid him off -- Texas Instruments. Ironically, he realized he should have had that cochlear implant when he could. After sacrificing the cochlear implant for the insurance benefits that he tried to save -- the health insurance was as lost as his pension. Today, Tracy counts himself among the blessed. He can support his family; he has a job.
Tracy's Future: Whatever tomorrow brings, the doctor was right, there is no need to fear for Tracy. His ability to accept what life hands him and move forward positively has been an inspiration that proves the power of taking one profound footstep after another. His entire life stands out as a pioneer for the working disabled. Tracy successfully traveled down an ungraded road before government helped clear a single pebble.
Years ago, Tracy couldn't hear the doctor when he clapped his hands. If we clap for him now, Tracy still won't be able to hear. However, it's hopeful that with our votes for him as an outstanding example of an Inspiring Amercan: Overcoming Adversity, we will be able to say to Tracy, "This is your standing ovation from America, so deserved and so long overdue."
Disabled Unemployed Statistics
Tracy's success is truly extraordinary considering that even though the Americans With Disabilities Act celebrated it's twentieth anniversary in 2011, "According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, just one in five people with disabilities were in the labor force, and the unemployment rate for those with disabilities remains much higher than the national average." Deafness is the first physical impairment to employment listed.
Answering questions about everything from Social Security to employment to affordable and accessible housing, Disability.gov is the federal government website for comprehensive information on disability programs and services in communities nationwide. The site links to more than 14,000 resources from federal, state and local government agencies; academic institutions; and nonprofit organizations.