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Publish Date: 4/24/2005

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Paul Migliorelli gets a hand down the stairs of his apartment complex in Boulder from friend and audiologist Karen Carpenter on April 6. He was heading to the University of Colorado campus to speak to one of Carpenter’s classes. Migliorelli was born blind and has been gradually losing his hearing since age 10. Migliorelli takes time to speak to Carpenter’s Speech Language and hearing classes once or twice a semester. Times-Call/Erin McCracken

Only Memories
Paul Migliorelli navigates a dark and near soundless world


BOULDER — Paul Migliorelli has never seen the sun shimmer on waves or studied his own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Blind since birth, he cannot picture faces or places and never will.

Migliorelli lost more sensory perception at age 10, when his hearing began to fade.

But by then, Migliorelli, now 40, had heard enough to remember the sounds around him.

Those memories — of everything from speech to chirping birds — have kept him from retreating the way so many people with multiple disabilities do.

Last month, he addressed the “Disabilities in Contemporary American Society” class at the University of Colorado to share how life works when you’re short two senses.

Migliorelli could have been a guest speaker full of vinegar, a man bitter about never having sight and losing most of his hearing.

As a boy, both of his ears picked up sounds practical and luxurious — a ringing telephone or a happening jazz trio.

Now, though, he is stone deaf in his right ear and has about 10 percent hearing in the left.

A digital hearing aid on his left ear improves his hearing to about 25 percent. But Migliorelli told the class the improvement is not enough to protect him from danger. He still can’t hear cars approaching as he crosses a street.

Even in the quiet Boulder condo he shares with his wife, Nicky, who is also blind, Migliorelli wears a wireless vibrator in his shirt pocket. Various vibrations tell him about the sounds that matter most at home: the doorbell; the telephone; the smoke alarm.

Such technology helps him listen in on life more. But technology, he said, takes him only so far.

He could have still felt cut off enough to give up working, dating and getting out.

“People say, ‘I’m surprised you’re not on drugs with your troubles,’” Migliorelli said.

In 1996 he left New York City, his hometown, for a fresh start and ended up sleeping on a friend’s couch in Denver.

But soon he landed a full-time broadcast engineering position at Radio Reading Service of the Rockies in Boulder, married a woman he met through a mutual friend and stepped more confidently into the world with his old friend — a white cane he calls EDITH, the acronym for Extended Device for the Identification by Touch of Hazards.

And he tried even harder to pay attention.

Migliorelli cannot hear every word someone speaks — even if they speak clearly into his wireless radio receiver. So, like an English speaker straining to understand French, he concentrates to pick out words and piece together meaning.

That daily struggle could break a lesser man’s spirit.

As a boy, the son of an Italian surgeon and a Polish nurse, Migliorelli played the piano and electronic keyboards. He sang with perfect pitch and had fun parroting all the foreign accents and dialects he heard on the city’s bustling streets.

Now, Migliorelli can barely hear himself speak.

His voice could have turned into the muddy speech of the average deaf person. But he stubbornly remembers what English sounds like.

It is at once a gift and a discipline akin to exercising.

“He has a steel-trap mind in terms of auditory memory,” said CU audiology supervisor Karen Carpenter, who has periodically tested Migliorelli’s hearing for eight years.

She laughed when she recalled his expert vocal impersonation of a New York cabby — something he has shown off while speaking to the CU class over the past several years.

“And you know students,” she said. “They don’t laugh just to be polite.”

His coping centers around speech, his life link. But a blind and nearly deaf man with wobbly balance needs a bag of strategies, he told them.

So, before dismissing the students, he passed around his wristwatch, a timepiece with a latched lens and a face freckled with raised dots that allow him to tell time.

His other devices do everything from reading the value of U.S. currency to scanning the color of his clothing.

But for all these aids, the biggest boost is attitude.

“If he were to choose the path of a victim, he could be completely cut off,” said the class teacher, Laura Jennings Kepler, CU’s clinical coordinator of the speech, language and hearing center. “But like most other human beings, he prefers to interact, to be active and live.”

Both she and Carpenter said they have tested people who look the same as Migliorelli in terms of deficits. They live in a dark, nearly silent world, too. But they have accomplished far less than he has.

He never knew sight to miss it. But he is unhappy about the hearing loss.

Still, Migliorelli told the class, the lack of hearing helps him to consider his life a big adventure — one that forces him to cope in clever ways.

For instance, in noisy crowds, he could be lost. But his wife — though born blind, she has perfect hearing — communicates with him through Morse code. She taps on his arm, and he taps back.

Migliorelli also has learned to put more faith in God and others.

To his chagrin, many well-intentioned people have been burned trying to help someone with a disability, maybe offering an elbow at the crosswalk and having the disabled person growl at them and shove them away, Migliorelli said.

But without kindness from strangers, Migliorelli stressed that he cannot step off a curb.

Over the years, homeless people have helped him the most, he said.

In New York, one man living in the park near his job at the radio reading service would see him and step in to help with cheer.

“He’d say, ‘Come on, Sugar. Let’s go!’” Migliorelli said in a gruff voice.

CU ethnic studies junior Vera Jackson said she had little interaction with people like Migliorelli. But she said she heard his message.

“He has raised my level of comfort,” said Jackson, 24. “I’ll remember how he just has to jump out there and trust people to help him.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.

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