SAN TAN VALLEY — As a deaf person maneuvering through a hearing world, Tommie Gross often feels misunderstood.
But as the first deaf person to receive an American Network of Community Options and Resources Foundation award, she hopes to inspire others to conquer challenges on the road to success.
Gross, 35, received the Disability Service and Programs provider award for the state of Arizona.
“It means a lot to me to even have been nominated,” Gross said. “This is a really rare award and really rare blessing to get.”
Gross has been deaf since childhood.
“I was born hearing and turned deaf around the age of 3 — to the best of my mom’s memory,” she said. “I had an allergic reaction to a childhood immunization and got a high fever, which resulted in the hearing loss.”
She said she often encounters people who have misunderstandings and a lack of information about deaf people and others with special needs.
“Some doctors or dentists or any health professionals normally aren’t used to meeting special-needs people, so their attitude to provide accommodation is pretty frustrating,” she said. “They act like it’s a challenge for them to get us an interpreter and they would rather that we set it up ourselves. Often we have to remind them that there is an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) law in place. Sometimes they don’t take the time to get an interpreter and often it results in a lot of unnecessary rescheduled appointments.”
Although she’s fluent in lip reading, conversing with those who don’t speak sign language can be tough, she said.
“Some people don’t enunciate their words or speak clearly or have obstacles that cover their faces. I have to ask them to repeat what they say or have them write it down,” Gross said. “The biggest enemies for lip readers are mustaches, mouth covers, no teeth, small speaking lips, not speaking clearly and facing away from me.”
A few years ago, Gross was employed at an area Walmart and said she encountered a few problems when customers didn’t understand she was deaf.
“I was stocking a bottom shelf and as I got up, I was facing my right side. I noticed people by me were staring at me and the woman in front of me gestured that there was someone behind me talking to me. I couldn’t hear her regardless of wearing hearing aids because all I could hear were feet shuffling, carts squeaking by and people talking, so it blurred the customer’s voice out. I faced my left and saw a female customer whose face was really angry and she rudely said, ‘I was talking to you. Are you deaf or something?’ I said ‘as a matter of fact, I am. I’m wearing hearing aids, and I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you.’ Her face turned very red, and she apologized profusely,” Gross said.
Gross, who has lived in San Tan Valley since 2017, was overweight for many years. She recently lost 250 pounds.
“My weight loss has changed my life for the better,” she said. “It taught me to take control of my life again and have hope and patience.”
Gross has worked as a direct service professional since 2017, a job she says helps people maintain independence.
“I help them cook their meals, provide transportation and take them to appointments,” she said. “The job is important to me because I’m building a relationship of trust and a sense of security for these clients who come from a broken home or who come from a broken family. They don’t have family that come to visit or talk to them over the phone, and that’s why it’s important to me to be able to show them that they’re never alone.”
She hopes to soon become an instructional aide for preschool children at a school for the deaf in Phoenix.
Her desire to help people extends beyond her profession. She is a member of the Silent Hope Church in Mesa, a church in which her pastor and much of the congregation are deaf.
Gross spends much of her time volunteering at the church. She has served as a worship leader and is now on the finance committee.
“My pastor is an ordained pastor who just happens to be deaf. He graduated from Golden Gate Baptist Theology Seminary in Scottsdale and he has a few hearing translators that will translate his signed sermons for the people who are not skilled in American Sign Language,” she said. “My pastor said when he felt the call to become a pastor, he realized how many deaf people didn’t have access to understanding who Jesus was or didn’t understand how to build a relationship with God. He felt the call to bring both worlds together the best he could.”
Gross said she volunteers because she believes it’s important and she wants to be a role model in the deaf community.
“I want to show them that there is more to life than just hoping for a change,” she said. “They can be the change. It’s important to me to be part of a community that often is overlooked and looked down upon just because we cannot hear or speak the same way as everyone else. I want to show people that we deserve to praise God the same way as everyone else.”
Winning the ANCOR award is a reminder that hard work does pay off.
“To be honest, I don’t know how it will impact my work, but it will probably give me a little more sense of self-appreciation that hard work does pay off,” she said.