The Mayor of Lithonia
Lithonia, Georgia (Senate District 43)
When Tira Harper walks into the small, square building that serves as Lithonia’s city hall, everyone knows who he is. Even before he gets there, when Tira tells his colleagues he’s going, they joke and say, “Tira, you’re the mayor!” Tira, pronounced Tie-ray, has a circuit he walks many days of the week – home to the Wayfield grocery store and city hall, which share the same parking lot, then back home. His community living support assistant, Barbara Branch, says she wishes he wouldn’t cross the road exactly where he does because there’s no crosswalk, but he’s been doing it all his life.
Tira serves on the Lithonia City Council in an honorary position created for him by Mayor Deborah Jackson. The two knew each other before, and she invited him to serve in this capacity to represent disability issues at the council level. Tira goes twice a week to meetings to share his thoughts and insights. Some of the things he advocates for on the council include more car fare and access to MARTA for people with disabilities. (Story continues below after slideshow.)
Born prematurely with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability, Tira didn’t walk until he was eight years old. He’s now a 35-year-old man who has lived in the Lithonia area his whole life. He lives with his aunt and step-grandmother, who was the wife of his grandfather. His grandfather, mother and father have all passed away. Even though Tira is legally his own guardian, his step-grandmother, Jo Ann Harper, helps to direct some of his financial decisions. Because of his CP, Tira’s speech is sometimes hard to understand. Barbara helps him to communicate with others, serving as a sort of translator. Tira says there are many people in his life who understand and help him communicate in this fashion, including his uncle, grandmother and cousins.
Having worked in this field over 30 years in three states, Barbara has been with KES, the day program and service provider Tira uses, for four years and has been working with Tira for two. Tira has a COMP Medicaid waiver, which allows him to have Barbara’s support 94 hours a week, so he is her only client. The two of them go out into the community together in many capacities, including stopping by KES a few times a week for an hour or two, going to work at Wayfield, thrift shopping and going to the library in multiple locations. Before they leave Tira’s home each day, though, Barbara helps Tira pick out his outfits and makes sure he’s working on his matching. Barbara doesn’t work with Tira on the weekends. He is very independent when he’s at home on the weekends.
Regarding the Medicaid waiver and how it helps to bring Barbara’s presence in Tira’s life, Jo Ann says, “It takes a lot of stress off of me. We had him in another day program a while back. The other program had him going out into the community like KES does, but it was also just a lot of ‘no.’ ‘No’ to this and ‘no’ to that. They didn’t believe in him like KES does. KES has been trying to teach Tira how to count money, which is great. There’s no stopping Tira.”
If a government official came to talk to Tira directly, he would tell them we need more jobs for people with disabilities and definitely more accessible MARTA options. Tira speaks about having to go downtown to the MARTA headquarters and how long it takes: “That’s crazy! I have to go all the way down to Five Points. I have to spend the whole day doing that. We need something local, closer. Lithonia has a lot of empty buildings. MARTA should buy one.”
Given how much Tira likes to walk, he also talks about how his community has too few crosswalks. Just a week ago, he had to go to the doctor because he was having problems walking. Cerebral palsy can lead to joint problems and inflammation. The doctor put cortisone shots in Tira’s hip and gave him some pills, which led him to be unable to walk and to feel generally lousy. Being unable to walk was about the worst thing that could happen to him, even if it was temporary. However, his 35th birthday was the following week, so things were definitely on an upswing.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Haylee Fucini-Lenkey