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Envisioning success

Elizabeth Franxman doesn't let her disability get in the way of dedication and motivation.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002


SOUTH WESTSHORE -- Elizabeth Franxman is a can-do kind of person.

When she wanted adventure, she moved to Hawaii. When she wanted a career, she went to massage school.

Now she tackles her greatest challenge: opening her own salon, Bellerophon.

Despite difficult odds, Franxman isn't afraid of failure. She's overcome much more.

She is legally blind.

Franxman suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease with no known cure. It starts with night blindness and gradually leads to tunnel vision. Patients lose sight of color and, sometimes, go completely blind.

Franxman was diagnosed with the retina condition at age 12 after straining to see the blackboard. She drove for about a year until crashing her candy-apple red Renault Encore.

"That was it," she says. "I almost died."

Today, the 36-year-old sees mostly in blurred grays. She can't distinguish a yellow from a blue and has no depth perception. She has lost all but 14 percent of her vision, and some of that is obscured.

Still, she feels fortunate when she thinks of people born into darkness. Her seeing-eye dog, Scout, helps.

"I've been dealing with it my whole life," says the petite brunette with soft, brown eyes. "I've compensated over time."

A King High School graduate, Franxman got interested in massage therapy while living in Hawaii in the early '90s. She was working at a gym, surrounded by fitness fans who extolled the benefits.

Franxman got her masseuse license in 2001 at the Humanities Center School of Massage in Pinellas Park. The Florida Division of Blind Services covered the tuition and familiarized her with the school.

She credits her teachers with helping her through the seven-month program without singling out her handicap. She took tests orally and learned the bones of the body by touching a skeleton.

"I never thought I wouldn't make it," she said. "But I was scared when I first started."

Massage therapy seems a natural choice to many people with limited vision. Teachers routinely tell students to close their eyes so they can feel the muscles and trouble spots.

Franxman says it gives her an edge.

"I'm probably more attuned because I don't have anything else to rely on," she said. "The only thing I can rely on are my hands."

Franxman opened Bellerophon last month in a small strip center at the corner of Manhattan Avenue and El Prado Boulevard. She does the massages. Her mother, Linda Hernandez, a 30-year cosmetologist, handles facials and haircuts.

She named the salon Bellerophon after the only mortal would could ride Pegagus, a white, winged horse in Greek mythology. The Mediterranean decor reflects her Italian roots.

Scout is a fixture around the salon. Franxman got the 82-pound German shepherd/collie mix a year ago from Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc. in Palmetto. The dog gave her independence.

"I can do anything," she says. "I can go out and feel like I'm not going to fall down the steps."

Scout spends most of the day napping in a corner or greeting clients. When the harness comes out, it's back to work.

The two always attract a lot of attention.

For one, people associate guide dogs with Labrador retrievers, not big mutts with long, silky fur. Secondly, they can't understand why Franxman needs a guide dog. She looks at you when she speaks and doesn't wear dark glasses.

"No one knows I can't see," she says. "If I don't tell them, they don't know."

Franxman admits she waited too long to get a dog. For years, she pretended she didn't need one and relied on others to get around.

Finally, it became too limiting.

She opened the salon with help from family and the state, which bought supplies, a "talking" computer and a projector that magnifies bills, brochures and other materials with small print.

They consider her a model for others with visual impairments.

"Elizabeth has made it happen," says Lynn Ritter, district administrator for the blind services agency, who oversaw the case. "She was so dedicated and motivated."

Her mother says Franxman's strength and determination have made up for any deficiencies. Whether dancing in high school or running a business, she set goals and stuck with them.

Only mom has seen her cry.

"I always said, 'You can do it,' " she says. "Nothing has stopped her."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

Elizabeth Franxman

  • JOB: Massage therapist
  • OWNS: Bellerophon, a new salon at Manhattan Avenue and El Prado Boulevard.
  • EXTRA CHALLENGE: She's legally blind.
  • CONSTANT COMPANION: Scout, a seeing-eye dog
  • SCOUT'S WEIGHT: 82 pounds
  • HER WEIGHT: 110 pounds
  • FREQUENT STOPS: Home Depot on Gandy Boulevard
  • FAVORITE COLOR: Burgundy, one of the few she can make out.
  • FAMILY: Married to Tarey Franxman, who works for the city of Tampa.
  • HOBBIES: Working out, Rollerblading and Jet Skiing with her husband, who rides on the back, shrieking.

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