At Perkins, high-tech is both future and now
$10m gift to help build new center
Boston Globe, October 20, 2009
By Katie Johnston Chase
Before Ashley Bernard got her new iPod Touch, the Perkins School for the Blind student could not use an MP3 player without help. But thanks in part to school officials, who encouraged Apple Inc. to make an iPod that gives and responds to spoken commands - standard on the latest models - Bernard can listen to her music like any other 16-year-old.
Such technological advances received a major boost last night with a $10 million donation from the Grousbeck Family Foundation, directed locally by Boston Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck. The gift, announced at a private dinner, will be used to build a 17,000-square foot center that will include a high-tech classroom and a lab in which companies like Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. can demonstrate the latest advances to assist blind students.
The 180-year-old Watertown school says the center is at the heart of a newly launched $25 million campaign focused on incorporating more technology into the lives of blind students.
High-tech “evens the playing field,’’ said Grousbeck, whose son, Campbell, 17, is blind. Grousbeck and his wife, Corinne, moved from California when Campbell was a preschooler so he could attend Perkins.
Corinne Grousbeck, who is a member of the Perkins board of trustees and chairs its fund-raising board, said she long worried about how her son would fare in the outside world after graduation. She figured his best option would be a seeing-eye dog. But her fears have dissipated because of recent advances that allow the blind to use the Internet, edit their own papers, and get around with the help of a GPS device that reads the names of stores and streets out loud.
“Now I feel confident that Campbell will leave here with a marketable skill,’’ Grousbeck said.
So-called “accessible technology’’ has come a long way since the days of Helen Keller - Perkins’s most famous pupil, who attended the school in the 1880s - particularly in the past few years. Until recently, students mainly relied on clunky Braille typewriters, manufactured by Perkins, to write. But instead of lugging around a machine that stretches the definition of portable, Bernard uses a 1-pound, Internet-ready word processor to play back chemistry notes, and she is reading “Animal Farm’’ on a digital reader the size of a BlackBerry.
“There is not a student in the United States who is fully ready for adult life if they’ve never used technology,’’ said Perkins president Steven Rothstein . “And this is even more true for someone who is blind.’’
Perkins is working not only to provide the blind access to the latest technology, but to create it through its Perkins’s Products division. Last year, the school bought Adaptive Technology Consulting Inc., a Salisbury company that sells devices to assist the blind and visually impaired.
Electronic tools can read labels and detect colors (a big help for someone buying groceries or choosing an outfit) or make cash registers talk. Brian Charlson, who is blind, has a cellphone that takes a picture of a document and immediately translates it into voice.
Twenty-five years ago, a more primitive scanning device was the size of a desk, and had such poor-quality audio that it sounded like a “drowning Russian,’’ said Charlson, vice president of computer training services at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, which provides skills training and education for the blind and visually impaired.
“Everything has gotten smaller, faster, cheaper, and more robust,’’ he said.
The advances are about more than convenience and portability; they help the blind find jobs. Charlson said the unemployment rate for blind people is three times higher than it is for sighted people, and technological advances will go a long way toward closing that gap.
Charlson, for instance, can perform routine office tasks that used to be major obstacles. He is able to check his Outlook calendar and read his e-mail on his computer, using voice technology or refreshable Braille, which turns text into Braille that can be felt on a screen.
Indeed, the digital revolution is fundamentally changing the way blind people live, said Paul Parravano, codirector of Government and Community Relations in the president’s office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“All the things that are happening in the marketplace, I think, are assisting how the blind have access to information,’’ said Parravano, who is blind.
The Grousbeck Center for Students and Technology will provide not only the 200 preschool-through-high school students on the 40-acre campus a place to learn new technologies, it will also benefit 100,000 people in 63 countries who receive educational training or products from Perkins, Rothstein said. Currently, different offices and classrooms across the campus serve as makeshift technology centers.
On recent day, teacher Jean Petrone showed 9-year-old Zachary Bennoui how to use a Braille display hooked up to a computer, which allows him to read what he types on the screen. But Bennoui seemed more excited about the technology that helps him access the directions for his drum machine.
Another teacher, Wendy Buckley, said she has witnessed the difference high-tech advances can make to the blind. One of her students, a 12-year-old who is deaf and blind, has blossomed with the help of a voice-output device that makes it easier for her to communicate in complete sentences.
For the first time, Buckley said, “She’s speaking her mind.’’
Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at email@example.com.