"Here Mike, let me get the light," I offered absentmindedly, reaching for the switch. It wasn't my smartest moment, and my friend had a ready response.
"Is that what I've needed all these years?" he asked sarcastically. "For someone to turn on the light?"
Mike Kosior was blind from birth. The same genetic disorder that robbed him of his sight also made him profoundly hard of hearing. Nobody would have begrudged him if he had stayed home and received disability payments. Yet he went to work each day, reporting for duty before anyone else.
We worked together in the IT department of a marketing agency. Mike would navigate the streets of Boston with a red and white cane. He was there early each morning, answering technical support calls and making the entire floor smell like his beloved hazelnut Dunkin' Donuts coffee.
Mike used a program that would read his computer screen out loud to him. Many mornings I would hear him reading the Boston Globe, interspersed with his own commentary. "Give me a break," he would say, to no one in particular. "Yasser Arafat? Too bad!" You had to be aware that if you sent him an email during a conference call, his computer would read it aloud to the whole group.
During that time period, Mike was one of the most reliable and popular computer technicians at the company. People hard at work on client deliverables can be a demanding lot, and they don't have much patience for software malfunctions. Mike was able to both help them and put them at ease.
I once asked Mike why he didn't use a seeing eye dog. He didn't miss a beat. "It's hard enough to get a job when you're blind," he replied. "Try bringing a [expletive] dog to the interview."
Work was very important to Mike. His parents insisted that he attend public schools with everyone else rather than be sent somewhere that specialized in teaching disabled children. He is believed to be the first blind student to attend his Tiverton, Rhode Island high school. In 1996, he became the first blind person to graduate from Bryant College in its 133-year history. Naturally, his degree was in computer information systems.
It took Mike a year to find a job after graduation. Potential employers were skeptical that a blind man could do computer repair and support, though they didn't always admit it. But he persevered. He had been told before he would never amount to anything. A high school teacher had suggested to him he wasn't cut out for college. He had proven people wrong before, and would do so again.
Mike rose up the ranks from being on the help desk to specializing in network security. He would eventually apply these skills in service to his country. Mike moved with his wife to Virginia, where he would work at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon and the Marine Corps’ Network Operations Command in Quantico. He liked supporting the military, but he would complain about government bureaucracy and people who were paid to do little work. He called them "turtle polishers."
Ultimately, Mike went to work for the Veterans Administration. He got up each morning at 4 a.m. and commuted over an hour by train and subway to his office near the White House. He wouldn't come home until 6:30 at night. He didn't complain about the long hours.
Occasionally, reporters would find out about Mike. He told the columnist Mark Patinkin that he chose this career path because it was the closest he could come to serving in the military himself. "I'd have thrown on that uniform in a second," Mike said. "I love my country. A lot of people don't realize what military folks do to sacrifice so we can be free."
Mike worked his way up to GS-13 in civil service, earning a six-figure income. He made enough money that his wife could stay at home with their adopted daughter. He hoped that his little girl would learn from his example of hard work that anything is possible.
Earlier this month, Mike suffered a seizure while having dinner with his family. He died at the young age of 38. It seems a sad ending to an inspiring story, but Mike wouldn't want anyone to feel sorry for him. There's more work to be done, and now the rest of us are just going to have to step up.
After accomplishing a particularly arduous task, Mike would occasionally allow himself a moment of celebration. "Mr. Antle," he would say. "The blind kid did it!"
Yes, Mike. You did.
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