By Ryan Vlazny
Airplanes and learning about their mechanisms have always made me feel alive. My longtime fascination with all things aerospace inspired my desire to work with computers for a living. But, at times, my hearing and vision loss caused some turbulence.
I was born profoundly deaf and later diagnosed with Usher syndrome―which combines deafness, retinitis pigmentosa (progressive vision loss), and problems with balance―at 8 years old.
Lucky for me, Usher lets me enjoy roller coaster rides with a perspective different than people with typical hearing and vision. I can more acutely feel the car’s ascent up the hill, the hang time at the top, the speed on the drops, the toggling back and forth on the track, and all the loops and twists in between. These sensations are most fun when I ride an inverted coaster―like my first “serious” ride in Oslo, Norway―with the track above me and my feet hanging in the air. I feel like I am flying.
My parents, heavily involved in the Deaf community, decided I’d learn Signing Exact English (SEE)―a manual communication system that, unlike ASL, matches English language and vocabulary―in place of spoken language. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I was fully emerged in mainstream classes, thanks to my parents’ commitment to my language development, and had undergone cochlear implantation. While I cannot understand spoken language with my cochlear implants (CIs), they allow me to hear laughter, birds, music, and the roar of a rollercoaster.
A few years after my CI surgery, airplanes replaced my passion for roller coasters. For my 17th birthday, I had the thrill of riding in an Pitts aerobatic airplane at the airport in Pompano Beach. The 20-minute charter ride felt like being on a roller coaster ride with 4,000 foot drops above the Everglades. The pilot, Jim, did a tricks that felt similar vertical loops on a roller coaster.
My mom and I took an (ordinary) airplane ride to Tallahassee when it was time for me to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), a requirement to graduate high school in the state. There we spoke with government officials about making the test optional for students with hearing loss, and we were successful. Still, after three tries, I passed the FCAT even though the requirement had been eliminated.
For the remainder of high school I continued on track, taking advantage of computer-related courses like web design and engineering. I was accepted to the Pre-Baccalaureate Engineering Program at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where I enrolled with a major in mechanical engineering concentrating in aerospace. Some math classes, especially differential equations, were too difficult, and with the support of my advisor, I changed my major to information technology (IT). Unlike with engineering, I felt I was able to fully understand and apply the concepts of IT.
As an IT student, I created a greeting card in Adobe Flash, a multimedia software program, about greeting a new student on my make-believe RIT World Airlines. The greeting card was even commended by the university president, Dr. William Destler in a one-on-one meeting.
Few college experiences compare with my opportunity to build my own airplane game in an application development class, though. The game simulated landing a plane, which other students found fun to play. Even though I wasn’t an aerospace student, I still got to enjoy some exciting plane rides at RIT.
Today I work as a Java developer for a financial technology firm, where I couldn’t be happier. I’m proud to be the pilot of my own career.
BIO: Ryan W. Vlazny lives in Pennsylvania.