Zeeshan Mahmood is a typical millennial in many respects. Born in 1992, he’s a digital native: He skypes, uses Siri, surfs the Internet, uses Facebook and YouTube, and always has his iPhone and laptop close to hand during his classes at Toronto’s Seneca College.
Mahmood is also one of nearly 70,000 Canadians who have both impaired sight and hearing. He’s also among a growing number who are using accessible technology to learn, work and contribute to society.
Mahmood lost his vision in his left eye when he was five, but could still see from his right. He woke up blind when he was 14. “I never thought of that, that I’m going to lose vision,” Mahmood recalls. “That really turned my life upside down.”
He has brittle cornea syndrome, a rare genetic condition that weakens the cornea, the outer layer that covers the eye and acts as a lens. Even a mild injury to the eye surface, which wouldn’t hurt most people, can have devastating effects for those with the condition. The disorder also commonly causes hearing loss.
At the same time, his hearing was also progressively deteriorating. “That was a really hard thing. I was so confused,” Mahmood says. “I just wanted to stay by myself thinking about how I’m going to get over it.”
Today, Mahmood is an A-student in computer-systems technology. He knows five languages, including tactile sign language, a form of sign language used by deaf-blind individuals by placing their hands on the back of the hands of the signer and reading the signs through touch and movement.
“I can speak Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, English and am also able to read Braille,” says Mahmood.
Mahmood says he is thriving thanks to his Nucleus® Cochlear Implants he received at the Hospital for Sick Children in 2008 and 2009, when he was 16 years old.
Other technology has also played a big role in Mahmood’s ability to thrive. He first learned to use accessible computer software tools while studying at W. Ross Macdonald School in Brantford, Ont. It’s a school with the motto: “The Impossible is only the Untried.”
“It’s not only about getting an education, this school also teaches life skills, how to be safe, how to travel, how to be confident,” Mahmood says.
He says he learned a variety of skills important for gaining independence, such as cooking, house chores, orientation and mobility in public spaces, carpentry (with adaptive equipment and techniques) and pottery. He also tried new recreational activities and sports such as swimming, skating, running and winter tubing and became adept at a sport called goal-ball (a sport involving a ball equipped with bells, designed for people who are visually impaired). Accessible technology opened new avenues for him, including social media.
Dr. Blake Papsin, one of Mahmood’s ear surgeons and otolaryngologist-in-chief at the Hospital for Sick Children, says technology can free people from limitations and obstacles, allowing them to learn to speak and helping them complete mainstream education, get jobs and interact with others.
“I’ve seen kids who are called disabled just blow me away with their ability,” Papsin says.
Mahmood hopes to go to university and complete a bachelor’s degree. He would also like to expand software for visually impaired individuals to run on other operating systems and wants to advance existing software and apps, to make them more user-friendly. He is passionate about teaching others.
After reflection, Mahmood says disability is simply “other ways of doing things in a normal way.”