Michael Forzano sits with his Labrador guide dog, Delta. Forzano suffers from a genetic disorder that took away his sight and limits his hearing.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Commencement 2013 profile: Michael ForzanoTweet
Imagine being born blind, and then imagine beginning to lose your hearing at the age of 5. Now imagine that you’re graduating from Binghamton University and will begin working for Amazon in August.
That’s a lot to think about and would likely overwhelm most people. But it hasn’t overwhelmed Michael Forzano.
A computer science major from Yonkers, Forzano suffers from Norrie Disease — a rare genetic disorder that robbed him of his sight from birth and has severely limited his hearing.
An uncle, who also suffers from the disease, had cochlear implants that improved his hearing, so at age 15, Forzano followed the same path. His cochlear implants have helped a great deal.
“My hearing was getting so bad that I couldn’t hear well, even with the best hearing aids, so I got cochlear implants,” he says. “I had to re-learn how to hear. It took about eight months to a year and a lot of practice before I was getting everything I could out of them. My hearing is now so much better, and it can only improve as the technology improves.”
Forzano has also made a change that helps him get from one point to another. In the past, he used a cane, which can be especially difficult when trying to navigate wide-open spaces, but three years ago he was matched with Delta, and the yellow Labrador guide dog has changed his life.
“I got her from Guiding Eyes for the Blind,” Forzano says. “I went there for a month of training. They match you up to a dog by personality and how fast you walk — and Delta walks pretty fast.”
Training was intensive. “Every day we’d train in different environments to help us learn how to work with a dog. One day we went to New York City; Delta was amazing at handling the subways, trains and busy city streets,” he says. “Learning how to work with the dogs takes time. They say it takes about six months to a year to become a solid team, but I lucked out the day I got her. She’s smart and learns fast.”
Delta is a working guide dog whenever her harness is on because she has to pay attention – but when Forzano removes the harness, she’s a “normal” dog, great with people and very friendly.
A resident of Hinman since his freshman year, Forzano just felt he would fit in at Binghamton and he has. “It’s a great school and everybody here is so nice and down to earth,” he says. He has a younger sister who thinks the same and has been accepted into the Binghamton Advantage program for the fall.
When he visits his sister at Binghamton though, he’ll have quite a trek. He starts a job with Amazon in Seattle in August. As one of about 900 interns for Amazon in Seattle last summer, he worked in software development, and wrote the software that sends reminders to renters that they need to return their textbook rentals.
“I’ve always been really good with computers, always enjoyed them, and I felt it was something I would be good at,” he says. “I was considering possibly becoming a lawyer, but I’ve been playing with computers since I was young and thought I would give Computer Science a try and found that I really liked it.
“If you did well on your project at Amazon, you had a good chance of getting a job offer,” he says. He expects to be working as part of the trade-in team or the rental team when he begins his full-time position there in August.
“You trade in your old books or other items and get a credit,” he says. “It’s a cool thing and I think more people should do it.”
Forzano credits one faculty member in particular for encouraging him during his time at Binghamton.
“Eileen Head (undergraduate program director for computer science) has been great. She always has her door open and is there to give advice on what classes to take and what internships to apply for,” he says. “She always encouraged me to apply to these big companies and I wasn’t sure I would be good enough. She said I have something unique to bring to a company, being blind and hearing impaired. She’s a big part of the reason I’m at Amazon.”
Still, Forzano faces a lot of challenges on a daily basis, even just getting around campus with its crowds of people. He admits that when he first arrived he got lost – a lot – but he focuses on remaining positive. He has also relied on the Services for Students with Disabilities Office to help “for things like getting my books for classes, working out accommodations with the professors and making sure notes are in accessible format.”
Everyone is great in Services for Students with Disabilities, he says. “Andrea Snyder has really done a lot for me over the years, doing the research for producing materials in-house, and Katy Perry this year as well. Every time I go in there, they work hard to make my life easier.”
“Partnering with Michael to insure the access he needed to excel has been a joy for the entire Services for Students with Disabilities staff,” says B. Jean Fairbairn, SSD director. “He’s graciously partnered with SSD and the Computer Science Department in exploring new realms of accessibility for the campus and has literally been a pioneer in our development of Braille and tactile access to his academic materials.
“He has embraced challenges optimistically, broken myths about limitation and expanded the vision of many regarding the power of human ingenuity,” she adds. “Michael will be missed but the impact of his presence here will remain with us always.”
Making friends presents another challenge of sorts for Forzano. “It’s easy to meet people, but to become really good friends is harder. I guess the thing is that I look at myself like anybody else and it’s hard for people to realize that at first,” he says. “I’m just like anybody else.”
One way he stays involved is through music. “I play alto sax in the pep band,” Forzano says. “I try to follow basketball a bit, but mainly I like to play. It’s something I really enjoy, so I’m hoping to continue playing once I move to Seattle.”
Returning to Seattle will also allow him to re-connect with others he worked with last summer. “I really liked Seattle. The people are laid back, unlike in New York City where everyone is so rushed,” he says. “And I like the outdoors and hope to do some hiking and camping. I’m an Eagle Scout and my project was building a sensory garden at a park in Yonkers.
“I don’t know what my dream job is,” Forzano says, but added he would love to run his own company someday. “The challenge is coming up with the new idea to bring to the table, something interesting or innovative. The thrill for me is writing software that people use and that improves their lives. I’ll be doing that at Amazon, but working on a project of my own that makes lives easier in a new and innovative way is something I’d love to do in the future.”
Next up for Forzano: relocating to Seattle with the help of Amazon relocation specialists. “They’re helping out a lot with the actual relocation with an assisted package and someone to help me look for places, so I can just worry about moving and learning to get around.”
Delta will help as well, just as she did last summer. “I got to Seattle two days before I started my internship. I really should have left more time, but she’s amazing as far as learning places — even after working a route two or three times she’ll remember it. I have to give her directions, but she loves to show me familiar landmarks. She’ll go up to a door and start wagging her tail.”