By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPCC

Dots and dashes changed Zachary Barnum's life.

This 17-year-old resident of Fredericksburg, Virginia, who is legally blind in one eye due to optic nerve hypoplasia and has a form of bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness), has built his self- confidence and a worldwide social network by learning Morse Code and becoming an amateur radio operator.

Said Barnum over the telephone, “I'm blind in my left eye because the optic nerve is extremely small. In the State of Virginia, I'm considered legally blind. I have the smallest bit of peripheral vision there and very little forward vision. They first discovered it when I was in kindergarten. As I went through middle school, it got worse. It doesn't affect me too much now because of having grown up with it. It's not like I just became blind (yesterday).”

Though able to drive a car, he does have to turn his head often to compensate for his vision loss. He had some difficulties playing in his high school band because of being unable to keep track of marchers to his left. The bipolar diagnosis came in 2011. It's a brain disorder causing problematic shifts in mood, activity and energy levels, and in the ability to carry out routine tasks.

His love for dots and dashes can be traced to second grade, when he and his father built a make-shift telegraph, and to eighth grade, when he earned a Boy Scout amateur radio merit badge.

“After that,” Barnum said, “I started studying to get an amateur radio operator license. I passed the test on my first try at age 15. Amateur radio gave me an escape and brought me more friends. I developed contacts with people all over the world. My first contact (using Morse Code) was with a man in Cuba. The second was with a man in Canada. I will never forget those contacts. They were the first two I'd had with people from another country over the radio.”

He advised teens with disabilities, “Don't let it get to you. Get out there, find something you're interested in and go for it, no matter what anyone says. If you want an achievement bad enough, you can do it.”

He said an amateur radio operator friend of his was developing a program for young people with certain disabilities, like autism, to become more active in the amateur radio operator community.

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