University of Baltimore student Matt Harris is almost totally blind and partially deaf, and yet he attends his college classes, earns good grades, parents two young women, and finds a reason (almost) never to complain. Is he superhuman, insane or somehow wiser than most? Read on.
“What’s up Mattiac,” my neighbor answered, calling me by the nickname she had given me.
“Well. I have good news and bad news,” I said into my cell. “First, the bad. I ran over your son’s shoes with my lawnmower. The good news is his feet weren’t in them.”
Marie laughed and breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that she only had to buy her 10-year-old boy, Joey, who had come to our house that day to play with my daughters, a new pair of shoes rather than a new pair of feet.
Scenarios such as these unfold every day for people born with a rare, genetic disorder called Usher Syndrome (US). US is a progressive disease whose goal is to rob people of their hearing and eyesight. Shortly after I shredded Joey’s shoes with my tractor-lawnmower, my mowing days were cut short when I wiped out an electrical post in our yard and then plowed the tractor into our house. No one was injured, fortunately. As US progresses, one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome is the emotional torment associated with having to surrender mundane activities. Sometimes it takes crashing a tractor into a house before we are willing to let go.
Right now, only 1 percent of my eyesight remains and 40 percent of my hearing. As you can imagine, a dual-sensory disability presents many challenges.
Most visually impaired people rely on their hearing to help them navigate their world. Hearing-impaired people, on the other hand, utilize their eyesight to help them better comprehend their environment. When a person experiences significant hearing and vision loss, however, the two senses seem to cancel each other out; the person then becomes like an immigrant in a foreign land, a land oftentimes fraught with language barriers and confusion. Last year, for instance, I experienced something for the first time, an event not on my bucket list for sure. It happened as I walked through the front door of a building on my apartment complex, a door I had entered hundreds of times. On this occasion, as I approached the threshold, my white cane missed a small bag in front of the doorway—and then squish! My right foot sank into the bag. It felt like stepping on a sack of crap. When a man screamed, “You stepped on my lunch!” I knew it was not crap, but that I might be in for some. He came near me and yelled again, with a “barbaric yawp” that would have made Walt Whitman proud, “You stepped on my lunch!” At least, I heard him. I then apologized profusely and told the man that I was blind and did not see his lunch, that it was an accident. Even though I displayed symbols of blindness, a white cane and dark glasses, I was still uncertain if he understood. Before I had an opportunity to offer payment for his lunch, he hissed something and stormed off. In the past, incidents such as these would weigh heavily on my mind for days, but I have learned not to ruminate on my mishaps as much as I once did.
Now, as I continue pressing forward on my journey with Usher Syndrome, I am actually excited about the future. Every year new technologies hit the marketplace that help improve the quality of life for people in the deaf-blind community. Right now, I can still use a laptop because of assistive software called Zoomtext, which magnifies the screen and adjusts the contrast that lets me focus on the text. Although the speech recognition part of my hearing has diminished profoundly, which means that I may hear your voice but not what you say, hearing aids have improved that particular language barrier. In addition to these technological aids, assistance from my fellow human beings plays a vital role in the quality of my daily functionality. The community at the University of Baltimore (UB), for instance, exemplifies the importance of how the human spirit can help people with disabilities achieve their goals. The support that I receive at UB from students, professors, and Disability and Access Services (DAS), allows me to pursue my dream of earning an English degree.
Even with help, I am still susceptible to mishaps in the classroom. Last semester during roll call, I thought I heard my professor say my name. “Here!” popped out of mouth, then I realized she had called out Maddie—not Matt. “Oops,” I said, “I’m not Maddie, sorry.” At first, I was embarrassed; but later, I saw and heard the humor in my blunder. Even without eyes and ears, it is still possible to see and hear the humor in a world leading eventually to silence and darkness—but not always.
When my wife left me three and a half years ago, after nearly 30 years of marriage, I shivered with pain for a long time. My life was turned upside down. All of my dreams, dreams of growing old with the one I loved, dreams of retiring to the mountains or to the seashore, were shattered. My relationship with my teenage daughters changed because I wasn’t in their lives every day anymore. As someone who struggled in the past with drugs and alcohol, some of my old ways of thinking began to resurface: I wanted to chemically numb my pain. On December 12, 1982, at age 22, I’d given my life to Christ. After my marital break up, I remembered how he had once delivered me from that addicted lifestyle long ago, and I didn’t wish to return to it. So, I prayed and asked him to help me stay sober and to make wise decisions during this period of upheaval and uncertainty. I wanted to numb the pain so badly, but his answer was that I must feel the pain before I could heal. Somehow I listened—I heard.
One year after my wife left me I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. Shortly after my diagnosis, I stepped out in faith and began pursuing my English degree at UB as a 55-year-old junior, who had been absent from the classroom for 17 years. I didn’t know if I could do it. Sometimes it takes me two hours to get to school, while I’m bouncing around on an MTA Mobility bus that seems to hit every pothole in the city. Even though I’m frightened, I’m excited about my next chapter. Now, when people ask me, “What’s new, Matt?” I tell them: “Everything is new.”