By Rebecca Fater
In its 185 years of existence, Perkins has seen only nine heads of school – a surprising statistic given the organization’s lengthy history. In a similar anomaly, the tenure of Steven M. Rothstein achieved much more than seems possible in real time.
“He gave us the work of 20 years in 11,” said Frederic M. Clifford, chairman of Perkins’ Board of Trustees. “He drove unprecedented change and progress at the organizational level, propelling Perkins into a position of leadership and global impact like never before.”
Rothstein’s governance concludes this spring. But individuals impacted by Perkins’ work locally and internationally will be talking about the difference his leadership has made for years to come. In little more than a decade, Perkins’ identity has shifted dramatically from a Massachusetts-based school for the blind to an international NGO. It has expanded its local and national reach through itinerant services, teacher training and eLearning initiatives. It has collaborated with the federal government to facilitate the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, promoted as iCanConnect, improving the lives of hundreds of individuals who are deafblind nationwide.
Rothstein came to the job in 2003 without significant experience in the field of blindness education, but emerges as a vocal, aggressive and respected advocate for individuals with disabilities – due in large part to his willingness to plunge in.
“Steven was a quick study in areas where he really had no experience,” said Clifford. “He wanted to learn. He knew it was important for Perkins’ future, but he was focused on a bigger goal: to change the trajectory of the lives of people around the world who were blind and had no power to help themselves.”
Rothstein invested significant time in advocacy efforts such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Treaty, signed in 2013 to allow publications wider distribution in accessible formats. He persuaded government leaders and philanthropists to invest money and energy into education and resources for students with blindness and visual impairment. He doubled the number of countries in which Perkins works to support local partners serving children.
Rothstein didn’t need to take his advocacy to a global level, given all there was to manage at Perkins, said Carl Augusto, president and chief executive officer of the American Foundation for the Blind. But he did.
“Few people in his position would be interested in learning about services for the blind throughout the country and the world,” he said. “But that was one of the first things he did. He reached out to a lot of people, including me, and asked lots of questions.”
Then Rothstein did another thing that Augusto said is rare for outsiders heading up large organizations: he got involved. He became a leader in key organizations, such as the Council of Schools for the Blind (COSB) and Vision Serve Alliance. He jumped into legislative issues and advocacy, promoting the needs and services of not only Perkins, but all independent schools for students who are blind.
“I believe he raised the profile of Perkins as a leader in this country,” said Augusto. “He helped Perkins reach new heights of accomplishment both globally and nationally.”
Rothstein’s knowledge and relationships at the legislative level served not only Perkins, but other specialized schools that saw state funding slip in recent years. Some of those public schools were prohibited from advocating for their budgets; so COSB leaders, including Rothstein, determined to appoint an executive director to represent the group and take a single message to Washington.
“Steven was one of the folks that helped shape that strategy,” said Stuart Wittenstein, a former COSB president and current superintendent of the California School for the Blind. “He had a lot of contacts, and he knew how to be heard in D.C.”
Rothstein teamed up with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey in 2010 to craft and build support for passage of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which increases the access of people with disabilities to modern communications.
“I was so proud to stand with Steven when President Obama signed into law the Communications and Video Accessibility Act, ushering in a future that is fairer, brighter and better for individuals with disabilities everywhere,” said Markey. “He has helped to build virtual on-ramps to the Internet, ensuring that in the 21st century individuals with disabilities can get online from anywhere in the world. ”
Rothstein was just as invested at the ground level, where many Perkins staff and students knew him personally. Walking through school hallways, Rothstein frequently engaged with students, asking about their day, or commenting on a recent event, said Dorinda Rife, Perkins superintendent.
“He just loves them,” she said. “It’s from the heart. Nothing he does is false when it comes to his relationship with the kids.”
That passion was apparent when Rothstein talked with supporters about Perkins. The overwhelming success of the Touch Our World Campaign, which raised $136 million to further Perkins’ work locally and internationally, was due in large part to his networking and communication skills.
“Steven did an excellent job of framing the case for the Campaign,” said Trustee Chair-Elect Corinne Grousbeck. “We knew we could count on his passion and deep connection to Perkins’ mission to close the deal with many key donors.”
It was that ability to connect on a human, personal level that made him so successful – and unusual – as a leader. Larry Campbell led Perkins International in the 1990s before Rothstein joined the organization. They met early in Rothstein’s tenure, at an international gathering in Nairobi, Kenya when Campell worked for International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI).
“He captured the imagination and fondness of people initially, because he really was genuine; a listener and a doer,” said Campbell, president emeritus of ICEVI. “And there was the fact that if you were in a meeting and it was time to clean up, he was the first one there to say, ‘Let me help you pick up the coffee cups.’”
Rothstein tapped Campbell as interim leader of Perkins International in 2010, a four-month period in which Campbell had the chance to watch Rothstein putting all he had learned into action. He was leveraging Perkins’ resources with partners big and small on the global scene.
“(Other organizations) were doing their solo act, and he was partnering with people,” Campbell said. “The reputation he’s built with foundations and corporations is tremendous.”
“Steven is a one-man, multinational powerhouse for people with disabilities,” added Markey. “He has given hope to individuals and families who believe everyone deserves the opportunity to fully participate in the world around them.”