Future Reflections                                                                                                      Fall 2001

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Deaf-Blind Teen Feels the Rhythm

by Ann L. Kim

Reprinted from Newsday, November 21, 2000.

Editor’s Note: The following article was passed on to me by Sheila Amato, Michael Conlon’s teacher of the visually impaired. The original title was “Teen Feels the Rhythm.”


Michael Conlon and teacher, Sheila Amato, in band uniforms and ready to march.
Michael Conlon (center, with glasses)
and teacher, Sheila Amato (right), in band uniforms and ready to march.
When the music swells during the East Islip High School band’s holiday concert next month, Michael Conlon will crash the cymbals together and prove that a student who is blind and hearing-impaired can join in collective harmony. He’s made this point numerous times already, playing the conga drums and marching in step with the band at pep rallies and football games. The dark sunglasses and hearing aids he wears are the only clues to the limits he’s overcome.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that I played well in the marching band,” the 17-year-old said. “And I knew I played well because I could hear everybody clapping.” Michael, who was born blind and can hear only sounds made immediately next to him, signed up for the band this year as much out of an interest in music as for more practical considerations: He needs an arts credit to get his high school diploma.

The sophomore attends the Cleary School for the Deaf, which leases space from East Islip High and integrates its students into regular classes there when appropriate. Michael is one of 13 Cleary students who take regular high school classes, and his course load this year includes algebra, global studies, and English.

There are about 1,200 students who are deaf-blind in the state, and only around 40 take mainstream classes for part or all of the day, said Madeline Appell, director of the New York State Technical Assistance Project. Michael is accompanied through the school day by Sheila Amato, a teacher of the visually impaired, who translates materials into Braille and keeps him aware of what’s going on around him in class.

It was Amato who first suggested that Michael join the band. And Michael, who already took private piano lessons, agreed. “I thought it was a great idea to try something new and play other instruments,” he said.

Ronald Fox, one of the school’s band directors, said he initially wasn’t sure where Michael would fit in with the band. “My first reaction was, ‘How can it be possible for him to be in a marching band?’“ Fox said. “Our initial thought was that he would stand on the sidelines and play while the band was on the field.” But it didn’t seem right to isolate Michael and have him singled out on the sidelines, Fox said.

Joseph Vassallo, the other band director, thought that if the drums could be pushed around the field in front of Michael, he could march along with the rest of the band.

So Vassallo and Amato went shopping for plywood and wheels and put together some prototypes that proved useless, getting stuck in the mud during practice.

Vassallo finally rigged a contraption made from a cart for carrying music stands, attaching the conga drums that Michael would play in Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.” Amato pushed the cart around the field during halftime shows and had to don a high school marching band uniform to blend in.

When asked, Michael says he can hear all the other instruments in the band, but Amato guesses he can really only hear those instruments closest to him and is unaware of the others. Yet he can hear enough to stay with the beat.

“When I hear everybody playing a song, I listen to the rhythm they’re playing and follow the rhythm,” Michael said. “I have a good memory, so I memorize the music.” Watching Michael navigate through a school day is a lesson in the things that can be taken for granted with sight and hearing.

He uses a cane to walk down the hallways, sweeping it in front of him as he goes. Toting a red backpack and wearing jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, he almost blends in.

With all the noise in the hallways between classes, he doesn’t hear passing friends when they call out, “Hi, Mike.” While Amato can translate Michael’s tests and assignments into Braille, materials such as maps and photographs can be tougher to handle.

Technology also plays a large part in Michael’s education. His teachers use a special system, about the size of a beeper with a clip-on microphone, that sends their voices directly into his hearing aids. During class discussions, students pass the microphone around the room. He takes notes and completes homework assignments in Braille with a machine that looks like a typewriter with nine keys. Before submitting his work to be graded, Amato pens Michael’s answers over the Braille he typed at home. A computer program translates text into Braille to print out tests and worksheets. Another program reads aloud the contents of Web pages and prints them out in Braille. One of Michael’s favorite jokes involves his talking calculator. After showing how the digital voice reads out numbers and tells the date and the time, he says, “And it also tells the weather.” Then he pushes the “Clear” button.

Now that football season is over and the band has moved on to preparing for its holiday concert, Amato is helping Michael learn his parts in the “Nutcracker Suite” and several other pieces.

Michael says he doesn’t lament his vision and hearing impairment and doesn’t wish he could see.

“It’s not that hard to be blind,” Michael said. “Since I can’t see with my eyes, I touch things with my hands. So it’s really not that hard.”

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