Advanced technology helps blind, deaf man

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Michael Conlon, who is deaf and blind, received this portable braille display machine, called Braille Sense U2, in May to use inside the classroom.

If you wanted to find out about turtle doves, chances are your first move would be to search for information online. To experience how Michael Conlon learned about them last Thursday on his home computer, try closing your eyes and covering your ears.

Mr. Conlon, 30, of Manorville, is a deaf and blind student at Suffolk County Community College Eastern Campus. He was born without retinas and uses digital hearing aids because he’s been substantially deaf all his life.

To show how he recently learned how to surf the Internet, Mr. Conlon demonstrated a new machine he received two weeks earlier by Googling turtle doves.

“About 670,000 results,” Mr. Conlon said as he brushed his fingers across a refreshable braille display.

Mr. Conlon picked the first result, Wikipedia, but didn’t click on it with a mouse or touchpad: To make the selection, he navigated through the computer using Job Access with Speech technology, known as JAWS.

The software also read all of the text displayed on the screen to him aloud, syncing with his braille-display machine rapidly changing like a pinscreen toy.

“I’m already becoming comfortable using the program,” he said as the computer read him the Wikipedia entry about turtle doves. “I’m still learning how to use it. I like it because it allows me to hear what the computer is saying and it also allows me to read the braille display in case I don’t understand what the words are.”

In the past, his teachers had to send his handouts, quizzes and tests to a braille maker. Sometimes if they decided right before class to use certain material, Mr. Conlon was unable to access it.

His mother, Mary, said her son’s classmates from his anthropology course shared their notes with him because the professor didn’t use a textbook.

“It was all class notes,” she said about the course, which her son completed this past semester. “His hearing limits him, so there were people sending him notes. The kids are great.”

Two weeks before his finals, Mr. Conlon received a portable braille display machine to use inside the classroom. The Braille Sense U2 technology gives him instant access to Word documents and other forms of digital communication, including email, instant messages, calendars, spreadsheets and GPS.

The device enabled him to study material he wouldn’t ordinarily have had access to, because of the lag time in the braille process, from the notes his classmates took two days before the final.

Ms. Conlon, who has a background in accounting, and her husband, T. Michael, a retired Suffolk County prosecutor, said their son was only able to obtain the two new devices, which carry price tags in the thousands, through support from a Federal Communications Commission program that offers assistance to adults who are deaf-blind access to 21st century communications services. The program is called the National Deaf Blind Equipment Distribution Program, also known as iCanConnect.

Sue Ruzenski, who runs New York’s iCanConnect program through the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, said computer screen-reading software designed for the deaf-blind population was first developed in 1989 and the latest JAWS program costs around $1,000. Refreshable braille display devices can cost anywhere from $1,700 to more than $10,000, depending on its use and its size.

The newest version of the portable Braille Sense U2 device was released last July and costs about $5,600, she said.

Ms. Ruzenski said Mr. Conlon qualified for the iCanConnect program and received the new equipment at no charge because he met income guidelines.

“Mike is a shining example of why this program is so important,” she said. “Technology is enabling him to access a world of opportunity and connection with other people.”

There are approximately 2.1 million people across the country who are deaf-blind, Ms. Ruzenski said, many of them being senior citizens. She estimates between 75 to 100 deaf-blind people live on Long Island.

Ms. Conlon said she’s found it’s hard for blind-deaf people to make friends and believes the latest communication tools designed for their needs will open new doors for them.

Although getting used to the technology will take time, the Conlons said they’re grateful the program also provides training on how to use the devices.

“We’re looking forward to the future,” she said. “This is going to make life so much better.”

Mr. Conlon, who plays the piano and has fond memories of playing percussion instruments in a marching band, attended school in East Islip because the district there has a program for deaf-blind students. Although his passion is music, Mr. Conlon said he hasn’t decided which type of career he’ll pursue after finishing college next semester.

School has been challenging, he said, but he believes the new tools he’s been given will help him keep pace with his fellow classmates.

“Persevere is my favorite word,” he said.

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