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Connecting to a whole new (digital) world

Zeeshan Mahmood, who’s had impaired sight and hearing since he was a teen, is using accessible technology to learn and to work

Visually and hearing-impaired student Zeeshan Mahmood had electronic devices that enable him to hear surgically inserted when he was 16.

Visually and hearing-impaired student Zeeshan Mahmood had electronic devices that enable him to hear surgically inserted when he was 16.

Photos by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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.

But Mahmood is not an ordinary computer whiz. He’s 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 woke up blind when he was 14, living in Pakistan. He had lost his vision in his left eye when he was five, but could still see from his right. “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, has devastating effects for those with the condition, says Dr. Melissa Carter, a clinical geneticist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The disorder also commonly causes hearing loss.

Zeeshan Mahmood is one of nearly 70,000 Canadians who have both impaired sight and hearing.

Zeeshan Mahmood is one of nearly 70,000 Canadians who have both impaired sight and hearing.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Determined to save his son’s vision, Mahmood’s father, Mahmood Hassan, took out a loan, and with further support from colleagues and family members, the pair travelled to the United States for a $20,000 (U.S.) cornea transplant surgery to try to restore Mahmood’s sight. Hassan started a successful catering and events business, and worked hard to fund subsequent eye surgeries in Pakistan and Britain to help preserve some of his son’s vision.

Despite multiple eye surgeries since the first one in the United States in 1998, Mahmood ultimately lost his vision nine years later due to complications not fully understood, Mahmood says. By the time he immigrated to Canada as a teenager in 2008, 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.”

Mahmood describes the additional challenges of moving to a new country, adjusting to a new culture and a new language as a teen, all while losing his vision and hearing. “That was my great wish to come to Canada, but I never saw anything here.” As he visited spectacular sights in his new country, such as Niagara Falls, his family had to describe them to him.

Today, Mahmood is an A-student in computer-systems technology and 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, who speaks English with ease.

Mahmood says part of the reason for his adjustment is that he received cochlear implants – surgically inserted electronic devices that enable him to hear – in 2008 and 2009, when he was 16 years old.

But as a blind person in a digital society, he still felt disconnected. “I really missed computers actually, I really missed playing video games.”

Mahmood 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 was founded in 1872 for visually impaired, blind and deaf-blind students and is part of the Provincial Schools Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education. He attended its high school along with approximately 200 students, kindergarten to Grade 12, and lived in the school residence on weekdays.

“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.

A special iOS camera app called TapTapSee acts almost like eyes for Mahmood, describing people and objects in detail to him. Accessible voice-over screen-reader software identifies icons and reads information to him as he glides the cursor across the screen. Similar technology allows him to find apps, the time, check remaining battery power, listen to text messages and e-mails on his smartphone and engage on social media. He relies on Siri, Apple’s speech-recognition personal assistant, to search Web information for him. He wants to get the Apple Watch because it could ping his iPhone, making a noise to help him locate it when he loses track of it.

Assistant Jimil Desai, left, helps Zeeshan connect cables and hard drives for his computer lab classes.

Assistant Jimil Desai, left, helps Zeeshan connect cables and hard drives for his computer lab classes.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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.

But not everyone has embraced accessible technology in the classroom for students with disabilities. In September, Ranee Panjabi, a history professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland sparked controversy when she allegedly refused to wear a microphone FM device to enable her hearing-impaired student, William Sears, to hear more clearly.

Sears launched a complaint with the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission. Mahmood was surprised to learn of Sears’s experience and says he’s never had a situation like that. Dr. Terry McQuaid, the director of Seneca College’s counselling and accessibility services, says her college “uses technology to remove barriers to learning,” including helping students set up accessible software on their computers.

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.

In high school, Mahmood helped start a Mac club, showing others with visual impairments how to use accessible technology on Apple computers. “I learned a lot from this school. Maybe I will give back to them something, too, so I started teaching.”

Technology is one avenue that has made the world more accessible to Mahmood and, in turn, his skills and talents are more accessible to the world.

After reflection, Mahmood says disability is simply “other ways of doing things in a normal way.”

Dr. Joelene Huber is a staff physician at St. Michael’s Hospital, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto faculty of medicine and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

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