Sep/Oct
2018

Marissa Larson: Raising her voice to help others

Written by Tori Utley Photography by Dawn Sanborn Photography
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MARISSA LARSON HAS HAD HER FAIR SHARE OF CHALLENGES. FROM LEARNING TO ACCLIMATE TO LIFE AS A DEAF PERSON TO EXPERIENCING ALCOHOLISM AND DEPRESSION, HER STORY CAN TEACH US ALL ABOUT THE VALUE OF RESILIENCY—AND HOW BOUNCING BACK FROM DIFFICULTY IS WHERE OUR GREATEST PURPOSE CAN BE FOUND. 

We Can Do Everything But Hear

Larson has been deaf most of her life. The idaho native lost her hearing when she was just 3 years old for reasons doctors could never explain. Having to learn to live, communicate and play differently, Larson says growing up deaf wasn’t always easy. And with a few family moves across the country—from Idaho to Texas and, finally, to Minnesota—it was challenging to find friends and build a community.

“It wasn’t easy growing up b-eing the only deaf person in my school,” Larson says. “I was bullied, left out a lot and struggled to make friends who were willing to learn sign language or take the time to get to know me.”

But Larson knew, as do others living with a disability, that she was much more than a deaf person. She was a daughter and a friend, excelled academically, had a great sense of humor and was a great athlete. Today, as an advocate for the deaf community, she’s made it her mission to educate others who “can do everything but hear.”

 

I Wasn’t The Only "Different" Person

After moving around as a child, Larson describes interacting with the deaf community for the first time as "culture shock." When she realized that she wasn’t the only deaf person in the world, “A sense of relief washed over me. I was happy to know I wasn’t the only ‘different’ person.” 

Finding community was a springboard for Larson. She made friends, got involved in her high school and discovered her athletic abilities in swimming, even landing a spot on the swim team for the Deaf Olympics in Venezuela in 2007. 

“I learned to love being deaf. It’s not a handicap to me,” Larson says. “In reality, I have the better of two worlds—English and ASL—and that makes me bilingual.” 

Larson later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only university in the world specifically for the deaf. And after graduation, she took up her calling helping others by advocating for Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Chicago, Ohio and, finally, back in Minnesota. 

Finding Recovery

Although many doors and opportunities opened for Larson, she says moving back to Minnesota presented some new challenges. She was struggling to find a job, something she notes is a common challenge for the deaf community. It was during this time that she noticed her life was in a downward spiral at the hands of alcohol and depression. 

“I would drink to feel normal and fit in with everyone,” Larson says. “I didn’t know how to be myself or to communicate my feelings or to feel comfortable around people, so that’s why I turned to drinking—to calm my nerves and have fun.” 

What helped Larson feel comfortable initially later led to increasing feelings of depression and isolation. After hitting rock bottom, Larson says she got sober and began her recovery on November 15, 2013. “I decided to get help,
so I went to treatment and started going to meetings,” says Larson, who has now been sober for four and a half years. 

“I still have to remind myself to take it one day at a time. I’m now much calmer, happier and more content with my life than I’ve ever been,” says Larson. “I’m inspired by hearing others share their stories of recovery. It motivates me to do better, act better and be of service to others.” 

Raising Her Voice

Between helping the deaf community through her role as a social worker and an ASL teaching experience in Managua, Nicaragua in 2013, it’s clear that Larson’s gift is truly in helping others. 

“Being deaf has opened my eyes to how much oppression and discrimination we face on a daily basis,” says Larson. “This has taught me how to fight for my rights, to stand up for myself and for what I believe in and for the deaf community as a whole. Now, I not only fight for the deaf community, but for other minority communities too.”

Today, she’s bringing her advocacy to the workplace. In 2015, she was hired as a clinical research coordinator at Mayo Clinic, where she’s now using her career to educate others on deaf culture. 

“Mayo has been very gracious to me by providing all the accommodations that I require to do my job effectively,” she says. “I am truly grateful to be working for a wonderful institution, and it has been an amazing experience so far.” 

Larson was recently given the opportunity share her story with her colleagues in Mayo Clinic’s Otorhinolaryngology department. “It helped improve the workplace atmosphere by breaking the ice,” she says. “It’s not often deaf people have that kind of opportunity, so I feel very blessed to have been able to share my story.”

Larson’s story can be an inspiration to others living with a disability: With the right perspective, what was once seen as a disability can later become your most valuable asset. Although life will have its fair share of struggles and failures, according to Larson, it’s just important to persevere and see where life will take you. “Never give up, and keep pushing forward to make your voice heard,” she says. “Stay strong and believe things will get better, and never stop believing in what you want or need. Challenge others and make them think. Most importantly, never stop chasing your dreams and goals.” 

 

Tori Utley is a Rochester-area writer and entrepreneur.