“All I wanted was a chance. I just want me and all the other people with hearing loss and hearing disabilities to get a chance.”
These are the words of Robert Piscitello, 31, a lifelong resident of Bethpage suing Nassau County on the grounds of discrimination against individuals with hearing disabilities.
Piscitello, born with moderate-to-severe hearing loss, began the process of becoming a police dispatcher this fall. By March, he’d met all the requirements for the position, he said, except the Civil Service Commission standard for audiology—because he wasn’t allowed to wear his hearing aids during the hearing test.
His attorney, Jonathan Bell, describes this as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law meant to protect people with disabilities from discrimination.
Piscitello quickly appealed his disqualification and took the hearing test again, this time both with and without his hearing aids. According to Piscitello, the proctor of the exam remarked on his improvement in performance while wearing hearing aids. Yet the disqualification still stood.
“Nobody would know that I have a hearing disability when I’m wearing hearing aids,” he said.
In fact, Piscitello’s corrected hearing has enabled him to be a telemarketer. He’s also studied music at Nassau Community College and Adelphi University, taught piano to people from ages 4 to 90 and performed at nursing homes.
Piscitello said that he first started loving piano when his mother gave him the Mission: Impossible soundtrack. He recounted the excitement and discovery this gift brought to his 13-year-old self.
“Now I could see all these movies and games and learn their music on the piano with sheet music and have a connection with that,” he said. “And that’s what it’s really about, connecting with people.”
Piscitello also mentioned how the sheet music for the Super Mario Kart theme song that his high school orchestra teacher gave him catalyzed his passion for playing music from television and other video games. He’s come to appreciate the challenge of learning and performing tunes, from the likes of Frank Sinatra and The Beatles, that bring others delight.
Piscitello noted that he enjoys making balloon animals for a similar reason.
“It’s another thing to make people happy, and that’s really what it comes down to,” said Piscitello. “I have a disability, and I’m not letting it hinder me from making other people feel good about themselves. I don’t even like to call it a disability, it just helps me understand people.”
Piscitello added that his hearing differences let him see things from another perspective, like when he worked on the piano with a man with Alzheimer’s disease or did the same with children as a volunteer at the AHRC, an organization that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
When his mother encouraged him to secure employment in the civil service, he applied to be a 911 operator with the Nassau County Police Department. It would be, he thought, his “dream job.” Being a police dispatcher would allow him to connect with others over the phone, like he had as a telemarketer, and it would allow him to help others, like he’d been doing with music, which he planned to continue on the side.
But then he faced what he called the worst discrimination in his life.
“The commissioner just looked at my test results,” he said. “But the commissioner doesn’t know me. People just shun us, when we’re actually very smart.”
He hopes that his lawsuit against the county will make the public more aware that people with impaired hearing can lead similar lives to “normal” people.
“My proudest achievement is that I can go on with daily life, even with a hearing disability, and just be who I am,” he said.