Lyme-Old Lyme student driven by interest in technology, helping others

Michael Rouillard, a blind student and a senior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School.
Michael Rouillard, a blind student and a senior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Like most teenagers, Michael Rouillard remembers the first time he drove a car. He was 17, and his dad took him to the parking lot of the Waterford Speedbowl, let him take the driver's seat, and directed him on where to go.

Unlike most teenagers, Rouillard is blind.

"It was awesome. I loved it," said Rouillard, 18. "Just the feeling of driving."

He was born blind but has rarely wished for sight or felt that he was missing out on a sighted world, he said. Except for driving.

"The only complaint that I have is not being able to drive. It feels like I always have to depend on somebody," Rouillard said. "I like to be independent. I like the freedom."

Like most boys his age, Rouillard strives to be self-sufficient and achieves independence with such ease that it often surprises people.

"A lot of sighted people are like, 'Oh, he's blind, he can't do this,'" Rouillard said. But from an early age, he has proved those people wrong, particularly when it comes to his use of technology.

"He doesn't like to boast, but nothing has been handed to him in life. He has worked very hard from the very beginning," said his mother, Judy. "He was young and very interested in how things came apart and went back together right from the very start."

And he continues to be interested in how things work. His interest in technology has carried him through Lyme-Old Lyme High School, and he plans to attend Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., next year to study either information technology or computer science.

"Technology is awesome," Rouillard said. "Because I've always used it, I've developed a love for it and interest in it."

His love for technology has helped him become independent despite his blindness. He has worked for the past two years as an intern with the technology department at the high school, the first student to take part in any work-for-credit program at the school.

"He's totally the groundbreaker here. Mike is incredibly talented, and he's just really intelligent," said Catherine DiMella, a technology facilitator at the school who is overseeing Rouillard's internship. "He doesn't consider his blindness to be a disability, and it really is not. He's so funny. He's got a great sense of humor, and that helps in tech support. He's just really quick."

With the help of screen-reading technologies, Rouillard is able to use his computer and iPhone to text, email, browse the Web and interact with others on social media. He can quickly search his phone for pictures of him and his girlfriend at the prom earlier this month.

Technology has also helped him engage with and help others.

When he found out a blind friend did not know how to navigate computers and other devices, he contacted her educational advisers, then met with her once a week to teach her how to use a computer. He eventually turned the experience into his senior project for school.

"For blind people especially, technology is so crucial. I felt like she was at huge a disadvantage," Rouillard said. "I like helping people. I have always kind of liked to do that."

Laura Drufva, an education consultant with the State Board of Education and Services for the Blind who has been working with Rouillard for the past few years, called Rouillard a "people person."

"He enjoys people, and if there's something he can do to help people, he will absolutely do it," she said.

According to Rouillard's mother, Rouillard has always been eager to help others. When his sister Ashley was 3, she slipped and fell into a swimming pool. She did not know how to swim.

Rouillard, then 8, heard her splashing, reached into the pool and pulled his sister to safety by her pigtails. "He saved his sister's life," his mother said.

Judy Rouillard said the family will miss Rouillard and his sense of humor when he leaves for college.

"I'm happy for him, but I'm sad because it's going to be so different without him," she said. "His sister will be totally lost."

Rouillard said he looks forward to the newfound independence that college life will bring, from living on his own in a dorm to meeting roommates and new friends and taking college classes.

"It's a big step," he said.

j.hopper@theday.com

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