A plane sits on the tarmac at Albany International Airport, preparing for a trip to Atlanta. A 7-year-old Chad Erickson is led down the aisle of the plane by flight attendant before his first trip into the sky. The trip that would spark a passion for aviation.
He carefully counts the seats in each row.
Two on the left, two on the right. Two on the left, two on the right.
Then at the fifth row, the pattern changes – three on the left, three on the right.
As the plane takes off, Erickson shouts “We’re going to the moon!” while many around him chuckle at the analogy.
Most people would not pay so much attention to these details, but for Erickson, who has been blind since close to birth, this information helps him understand the world.
The now 19-year-old was born after just 23 weeks gestation, with retinopathy of prematurity stage 5; a condition that develops when “abnormal blood vessels grow and spread throughout the retina,” according to the National Eye Institute. The condition affects 400-600 prematurely born infants every year.
After his birth in June of 1997, he remained at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital until November.
“It was really hard, especially after I was discharged from the hospital and went back to Vermont and he’s in New Hampshire,” his mother, Connie Erickson said, getting choked up talking about those emotional months, even years later. “I got several pages from the hospital telling me that they didn’t think he would make it through the day, did I want to come and say good bye? I wouldn’t, I couldn’t do it. I fought for him and to me it was like going over there and telling him it was okay to die on me, and it wasn’t.”
Although an adult now, his mother still fights for him.
“We were originally from Vermont and we moved to Florida 11 years ago so that he could get what we thought was a better education from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, but that didn’t work out. He was bullied there,” she said.
She then enrolled him in mainstream schooling for 9th and 10th grade, but there he found more challenges, specifically when it came to marching band.
“That marching band teacher was going to put Chad in a chair and stick him in front of the audience,” she said. “That marching band teacher, at the end of Chad’s 10th grade year, said he was all done with music and done with the band.”
This was shocking and disappointing to her since ever since he was a baby, music has been his passion.
After enrolling at Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach, Florida, things finally turned around.
“That marching band teacher was excited, the kids were excited. They put him on the field and it was amazing,” she said.
Stephen Klepner, the graduate assistant in the music program, and one of Erickson’s instructors in the marching band where Erickson played timpani in the pit orchestra this year, can’t believe anyone would discourage a student from being more involved in music.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, and if it’s true, it’s a crime,” he said. “It’s an issue that most music teachers have. They dismiss things that they aren’t able to handle. It’s easier as an educator to say he’s too much work to retrofit my lesson plan to him so I’ll just say music isn’t for him.”
Klepner himself has learned so much from Erickson about teaching students who are blind or have differing abilities. For instance, when writing on the board, professors need to say out loud everything they write when there is a student who is blind in the class. In conducting class, someone needs to move Erickson’s hand in the proper directions and give him feedback on his performance.
He is a very auditory learner, but uses a device called a Braillenote – a kind of braille keyboard, to take notes.
A musical life
Never short on words, he is often found in the Fine Arts Center talking to professors and students, all while tapping his leg and “uhhuh-ing” along as they talk.
“He asks a lot of questions. Anytime he meets a new person the first question he’ll ask them is if they play an instrument, and then he’ll ask them everything that has to do with the instrument that they play,” said junior Jasmine Keefer.
Keefer was Erickson’s group leader, affectionately called “mom,” for the summer transition program and has gotten to know him during marching band.
“He wants to know if you’re a musician. He wants to know what your connection to music is, and he relates to you through music,” he Klepner.
Unsurprisingly, the sophomore is a music education major, who plans on staying to get his master’s degree in music education from the university. He learns most music by listening, but has recently learned how to read braille music.
When near any new instrument, he feels it to get a sense of what it is and how it looks. Approaching a new piano for the first time, he not only feels the keys, but feels the strings inside and the sides of the instrument to get a better sense of its size, shape and style.
Erickson has a very impressive instrument collection of his own including “a piccolo, two flutes, three clarinets, four saxophones, three trumpets, a trombone, a baritone horn, a violin, a guitar, a dulcimer, several harmonicas, two melodicas, three accordions, a couple recorders, a piano, an organ and a snare drum, along with some minor instruments.”
His memory is impressive too, if you can’t tell.
Although the accordion was his first instrument, taught by his grandmother, and saxophone is his main instrument, there are many instruments he hasn’t played including double-reeded instruments like a bassoon or oboe.
Just by being himself, Erickson has been an asset to the music department, classmates and professors said.
“He’s very much a person who is in the present, he is wholeheartedly living in the moment,” Klepner said. “He’s very talented. He’s very passionate about music and it’s something a lot of his peers don't have to the same level.”
Up, up and away
His other passion, aviation, is surprising to some people.
A few years after that first plane ride at 7, Erickson was able to sit in the cockpit of a plane and even use some of the controls.
“He’s always loved flying and so he got a chance to go up in a helicopter in St. Augustine, Florida, and then got the chance to go up in an airplane. While he was in the airplane he was in the front seat in the cockpit and I was in the back,” his mother explained.
Once in the sky and above the ocean, the pilot relinquished control of the plane to him and he grabbed the controls and excitedly jammed it forward, causing the plane to nose dive. He then pulled it back, imitating the movement by leaning back as he explains, and the plane shot up into the sky. All the while his nervous mother, afraid of both heights and water, sat in the back seat hoping they wouldn’t crash.
Just another student
Spend a few hours with Erickson, and it becomes clear he is determined to do daily tasks with as little help as possible.
Walking across campus in his grey sweatshirt, he moves his cane across the pathway to feel the direction, using the map in his mind, knowing that at a certain point the path with split into two and he needs to take the one on the right in order to get back to his room in Babcock Hall.
He decided to attend Castleton to continue a family tradition, following his mother and grandmother who have also attended. Choosing to live on campus to get the full college experience, while his mother lives just 20 minutes away in Rutland, is another way Erickson proves his determination.
“Chad is incredible,” said Bre Morse, his community advisor in Babcock Hall. “He doesn't need as much help as everyone thinks. He does his own laundry, takes the stairs, he can tell whose laptop is whose just by feeling it. He’s opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
His single room is set up with the normal furniture of a dorm room: a bed, desks, a bureau. But something not found in the average room is an embosser, like a printer for braille, which prints pages Erickson is able to understand. His computer is also equipped with JAWS, a screen reading program that can read aloud his email or any other web pages he visits. He has encountered a few problems when it comes to Moodle though, making it an area his mother assists him with.
One of the few other places he needs assistance is in the dining hall, where he explains tables are often moved around and it is unclear what is for dinner.
Seeing him in Huden Dining Hall daily, fellow classmates will notice one of the employees scan his ID hanging by lanyard around his neck, seat him at a reserved table either to the left or right of the entrance, and then tell him what is for dinner. A few minutes later they return with a plate of food, utensils and two glasses of white milk.
During the summer transition program before his freshman year, Erickson was having dinner with Keefer and others. Keefer got him a glass of milk and “he chugged it within five seconds of sitting down,” she laughed. She continued to laugh as she admitted she had to get him at least four glasses of milk that day.
From that point on his nickname in the group became “The Milkman.”
Erickson is able to live on campus, eat in the dining hall and play in marching band, but is there anything he feels he is missing out on?
“Not at all, not really, no,” he said proudly. “Sometimes other people who may be blind or deaf or have other disabilities, they may feel they are missing out on something, but no, not with me.”