MANATEE -- Leonzo Gonzalez nearly died 10 years ago, when he was hit by a drunk driver and suffered massive, full body trauma.
Gonzalez lost oxygen to his brain, damaging his optic nerve and leaving him totally blind, the 36-year-old said last week.
When his older brother visited him in a rehabilitation center 18 months after the accident, Gonzalez was in despair. He had no idea how he was going to support his wife, Crystal, and their two children.
"How am I going to do it, I've got two kids?" Leonzo Gonzalez moaned to his brother.
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Lorenzo Gonzalez did not mince words with his brother.
"Look, dude," Lorenzo Gonzalez said. "I can't come and visit if you do this every time I come. It hurts me. The world is not going to stop spinning for you. Either you got to catch up to it and start spinning with it or give up."
After his brother left the room, Leonzo Gonzalez said he realized he had a choice to make.
"I decided to be there for my wife and kids and that's all that mattered," he said.
How Gonzalez got back on his feet over the last 10 years involves -- in no small measure -- the Americans With Disabilities Act, commonly known as the ADA.
"The Manatee County Handy Bus picks me up at my doorstep," Gonzalez said. "I know The ADA provides this transportation for people with disabilities."
Gonzalez has also worked at Goodwill of Manasota the last three years. He is among about 100 other workers, more than 12 percent of the Goodwill workforce, all of whom have significant disabilities but are guaranteed the chance to work through the ADA, said Goodwill of Manasota vice president Veronica Brandon Miller.
The ADA, which was passed in 1990, guarantees equal opportunity for workers with disabilities in employment, as well as transportation and state and local government services, Brandon Miller said.
"By breaking down these barriers, the ADA enables society to benefit from the skills, talents and purchasing power of individuals with disabilities and leads to fuller, more productive lives for all Americans," Brandon Miller said.
From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 24, Goodwill Manasota will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA with a free luncheon at Goodwill's International Training Center, 2705 51st Ave., Bradenton.
The event features special guests John T.R. Howell, Area 4 director of the Division of Vocational Rehab and Myra Goldick, author of "Focused, Unstuck and Back in Action" and "Dancing on Your Disabilities."
Help from his friends
Gonzalez gets up early every weekday at his family's residence at Royal Palms Apartments and takes the Handy Bus to Goodwill Manasota's huge new store on
He works there 40 hours a week as a "tag hanger," hanging clothes that go out to the floor.
Having equal opportunity to get a job through the ADA despite being blind has changed everything for the Gonzalez family, said his wife, Crystal.
"When he got his job, that's when things changed for us," Crystal Gonzalez said. "He felt like the man of the house again. He felt he was supporting his family."
While it is true that Gonzalez still lives in total darkness, he doesn't live in despair or deep depression.
The list of his "friends," he said, begins with Crystal, who stuck by him through very rough times, his extended family in Bradenton, and his children, Shaylien, now 13 and Ian, now 9, whose laughter he lives for and whose teasing he even enjoys.
"They say, 'Really dad?' " every time he runs his hands over their faces," Crystal Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez pictures his wife and daughter as he last saw them, quite younger. He has never seen Ian, except to "see" him by running his hands across his face.
"Being a father is everything to me," Gonzalez said. "I know my kids wish sometimes I could see. Ian will sometimes say, 'Dad, I wish you could see this video game.' "
Other friends include Bruce Emmerton, district administrator for Florida Division of Blind Services, whose local office is in Palmetto.
"Bruce connected me with Lighthouse Ministries and Outreaches and they helped me for three months on how to get around my house and helped me use the cane," Leonzo Gonzalez said. He also "encouraged me to go to the Louisiana Center for the Blind for six months where they helped me learn to travel the streets, cook, clean and live independently."
ADA means 'greater access'
To U.S. Marine Cpl. Retired Michael Jernigan the ADA means access.
Jernigan, a St. Petersburg resident who is the community outreach coordinator for Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, lost his vision to a blast from an improvised explosive device while he was serving in Iraq in 2004.
Although many people who know about his experiences through the HBO documentary "Alive Day" and his blog, few know why he transferred from Georgetown University to the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg where he earned a BA in history three years ago.
One of the classroom buildings at Georgetown was built in the 18th century and was upgraded with elevators, but did not have Braille or raised letters marking the doors, Jernigan said a few days ago.
"When I get off the elevator in a building and I need to find a classroom, I read the numbers on the doors then I know which direction to go up or down," Jernigan said. "I count doors after reading the Braille on the doors."
Because of its age and "grandfathered" status, the Georgetown classroom building did not have to by law be upgraded with raised letters, Jernigan said.
But he hoped Georgetown officials would see the value in doing the upgrades.
"I went to my disabilities counselor at the university and explained my difficulty," Jernigan said. "She said she needed to talk to engineering and administration."
Georgetown officials eventually decided they were willing to label Jernigan's classrooms, but not the rest.
"I expressed to them that I would need every door marked so I could find my way," Jernigan said.
Since Georgetown refused, Jernigan transferred to USF.
"I knew that because it was a state school it was fully ADA compliant," Jernigan said. "Every door had a label. Even the utility closets were labeled. Now you see where ADA compliance has a great impact. I would have had a Georgetown degree if they would have been more ADA compliant."
The ADA also allowed Jernigan to bring his guide dog, Brittani, everywhere with him.
"My service dog did 66 round trip flights and she attended games at Yankee Stadium and walked the halls of Congress," Jernigan said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.