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June 4, 2006

Christopher Jett

From: Boston Globe, United States - Jun 4, 2006

Though deaf and blind, he won't accept 'no' or 'can't do'

By Stephanie V. Siek, Globe Staff | June 4, 2006

From his first day at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Christopher Jett was not a student who wanted to follow the rules.

Then 7 years old, Jett repeatedly threw tantrums. When he began his schoolwork, he would work for about 5 minutes before hiding under his desk, emerging only to throw things or to kick the teachers.

He was frustrated at being in completely alien surroundings, with unknown people and, at first, no way to communicate with them. Having experienced a fast decline of his hearing and vision over the course of a year, he was newly blind and deaf and hadn't learned sign language or Braille. Adding to his frustration was that the sudden loss of those two senses was unexplained. It still is.

``I had a lot of behavior problems," said Jett, now 20.

The tantrums stopped as he learned how to express himself and listen to others, through sign language and a technique called Tadoma, in which he feels the speaker's lips, neck, and throat to decipher words and sounds. He can speak clearly, although he sometimes uses an interpreter to translate by signing into the palm of Jett's hand. In April, Jett received a cochlear implant, which allows him to hear some things, but he's still relearning how to interpret the sounds of speech.

``Perkins has a slogan: `All we see is possibility,' and Chris Jett personifies that by doing what he does every day," said Steven Rothstein, president of Perkins. ``He is a role model for not giving up, for moving forward."

Make no mistake, Jett still likes breaking the rules. But now it's the ones that people have about what he should and should not be capable of as a deaf-blind person.

He has given speeches in front of state legislators and presidents, and on June 16 he'll address his fellow students at graduation. Last October he spun in simulated weightlessness and launched a model rocket at US Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. He has met former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is writing his autobiography. And he plays the drums.

``I don't accept `no' or `can't do,' " Jett said.

Yet, if you ask him about what stereotypes people hold about deaf and blind people, he finds himself struggling to answer.

Maybe that's because he doesn't really have to face them. Jett hunts, fishes, and rides snowmobiles just like all the other young people in his hometown of Mexico, Maine.

Well, maybe not just like them. There are a few more steps involved. ``It's complicated" is all he will say. But none of this should be surprising from a guy whose childhood dream was to be a Marine.

``Basically, I think nothing should stop me, because it's important to show people that you can continue the challenge and not give up," he said. ``If you give up, you're not happy."

Jett acknowledges that there have been several times when he ``wanted to throw it away, drop out of school." His two sisters and brother, who are not deaf or blind, took that route, and Jett realizes their job opportunities are diminished because of it. Jett will be the first in his family to graduate from high school.

``I'm trying to make my life better, not because I think I'm better than them, but because I'd like them to look up to me," he said. ``I'm the oldest brother."

Jett stresses that he's a ``regular kid" and recoils from the idea that he's a poster boy for anything.

But he hopes that he can inspire people with not-so-regular challenges. ``I'm hoping I can encourage them to really push their limits, if they can, and also . . . not to feel sorry for themselves," he said.

After graduation, he will head to the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, N.Y., where he'll spend a year or two boning up on skills like cooking, budgeting, and adaptive travel to make it easier to navigate a world not designed for people with disabilities. After that, he wants to go to college and ultimately become a lawyer specializing in discrimination cases.

Mary C. Zatta, who has taught Jett for many years at Perkins, said she's sure he is meant for some kind of role in public life.

``He puts more pressure on himself to succeed than any of us," she said, adding that sometimes the teachers have to tell him to relax.

Zatta says Jett has changed the way she thinks about the limits of her other disabled students. She said she has learned the importance of listening to their dreams.

``I feel very lucky to work with him, to know him over the years," Zatta said of Jett. ``He's taught me more than he'll ever learn from me, that's for sure."

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached at

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.