Baseball and Music Help New York Student Adjust to Blindness

After losing most of his vision at age 15, Matthew Cho adjusted with the help of sports and music.

Matthew Cho was 15 years old when doctors made a devastating discovery: he had a brain tumor the size of a clementine.

Cho, a Korean-American native of New York City, had just begun his sophomore year of high school when he received the news in September 2019. He underwent surgery, with most of the tumor being removed. Cho was scheduled to undergo radiation therapy until he received another setback.

Just seven weeks later, the tumor regrouped to almost the same size as the first, and doctors had to perform a second surgery. This time when he awoke, Cho realized he had lost most of his vision.

“That night, I kind of cried after all that happened,” Cho, now 20, recalled. “Tumors aren’t supposed to grow (back) that quickly. When it gets to that kind of size, it usually takes years, which is what doctors said my first tumor was.”

At first, Cho thought his vision loss would be temporary, that it would eventually return. As time went on, however, he began to realize it was permanent. He currently has a small amount of vision in his right eye and none in his left.

“Month after month, I realized (regaining my vision) was not going to happen. I was like, ‘what am I going to do with my life’? I used to cry every day by myself wondering what was going to happen.”

COVID-19 hit around that time, and the isolation only added to the loneliness and depression. Fortunately, Cho had his family to rely on for support. His father, a dentist, and his mother, a violinist for the New York City Ballet, were there for him practically around the clock along with his younger sister.

One of Cho’s most painful memories during that time was watching most of his friends abandon him once they realized he was visually impaired.

“My friends from my old high school, it was kind of sad because after the surgery, no one was willing to talk to me. I really depended on my parents. My mom, my dad and my sister, they all went through that journey with me.”

Just as the COVID shutdown took full effect, Cho decided it was time to quit feeling sorry for himself and move on with life. The lack of face-to-face contact made the process especially difficult, but he eventually began to meet others outside his family circle who helped him forge a new path.

Cho’s doctor recommended he get in touch with the Lighthouse Guild, a nonprofit vision and healthcare organization that provides health services, training and support for the blind and visually impaired. Initially incorporated as the New York Association for the Blind in the early 1900s, it joined forces with Jewish Guild Healthcare in 2013 and became Lighthouse Guild.

Cho began learning independent living skills, orientation and mobility and adaptive technology. He finished his high school education at New York Institute for Special Education and is currently attending Marymount Manhattan College,, where he hopes to earn a degree in clinical social work.

It was through Lighthouse Guild that Cho was introduced to blind baseball, an adaptive form of America’s pastime. An avid New York Yankees fan growing up, he was thrilled to learn there was an adaptive form of baseball for blind and visually impaired individuals.

“I always wanted to play a team sport, whether it was baseball or basketball. I never got the opportunity. My technology instructor, the manager of the team, contacted me (and asked), ‘do you want to come and practice with us’? I was like, ‘OK, sure’. I loved it. It was really amazing.”

Different from its American counterpart beep baseball, blind baseball was developed in Italy by a group of Italian baseball players in 1998. Teams consist of five visually impaired players and two sighted base coaches. The ball contains bells that emit a sound for the players to hear, and the coaches make clapping sounds using paddles to alert them where the bases are located. Rather than using a pitcher the way beep baseball does, players of blind baseball toss the ball in the air and attempt to hit it by listening to the sound of the ball.

Cho plays for the Guild’s team, LG Lightning. It was through one of the team’s founders that he first learned about the Foreseeable Future Foundation. He applied for a scholarship last December and found out he was selected as a recipient earlier this spring. The scholarship will cover expenses for him to accompany the team at the Blind Baseball International Cup, an event sponsored by the World Baseball Softball Confederation. The 2024 Cup will be held in the United Kingdom in September.

“I was really excited. When I found out about the grant, I was like, ‘wow, even if I don’t make the team, I still get to go with them’.”

In December 2022, Cho was selected to represent the Lighthouse Guild at the Artemis I program, a virtual mission through NASA, Amazon and Lockheed Martin designed to enhance the future of human exploration on the moon and Mars. The test mission, which sent the first unmanned rocket into space, was powered by Alexa, the AI voice of Amazon.

Cho traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he toured the facility and learned about the process astronauts undergo to prepare for a space mission. He also got to touch the different materials that are part of the suits astronauts wear to protect them from extreme conditions.

“It was so cool. I got to experience how individuals with disabilities can still embrace the same things that people who don’t have disabilities can.”

Music is also one of Cho’s passions, a trait he got from his violinist mother. He plays guitar and clarinet and loves to sing. It was while in the hospital recovering from surgery that he discovered how therapeutic music was. When Cho began attending Marymount Manhattan, he initially thought about studying music therapy but decided instead on clinical social work.

While his life isn’t perfect by any means, Cho is content. He is a strong advocate for people with disabilities and is always happy to offer advice to anyone going through the same struggles he had after first losing his vision.

“Don’t let a disability stop you from achieving your goal, because it’s not a roadblock. It might cause you to find a detour, but don’t let it stop you.”