As the industrial washers and dryers whir behind her, 21-year-old Natacha is hard at work. She pulls sheets, pillowcases and towels out of the dryer bin, carefully folding each one and placing it in the appropriate stack.
For Natacha, learning to do this work now means she’ll have the skills she needs to gain meaningful employment in the future.
That’s the aim of Perkins School for the Blind’s summer World of Work program, which places students who are visually impaired at internships that best suit their skill sets across the Boston metro area. The program is one of several Perkins Outreach programs, open to public school students, which prepare teens who are blind for future careers.
“Most high school kids who don’t have visual impairments can say, ‘I had a summer job once,’” said Perkins Job Developer Karen McCormack. Students who are blind also need work experience, including “social skills and traveling skills, so they can be active and engaged in the community.”
During the five-week program, students live on campus and commute to their workplaces each day. Natacha, who has low vision as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited retinal degeneration disorder, takes the bus independently to the Residence Inn down the street in Watertown, Massachusetts.
“Perkins found us the perfect candidate,” said Residence Inn General Manager Sharad Chand. “She’s cheerful, she’s engaging, she communicates well with the team. She’s done a tremendous job.”
Natacha works with the housekeeping staff, learning to load and wash different linens at the appropriate temperatures, as well as folding everything that comes out of the dryer. She also cleans guests’ rooms after they leave, stripping the beds, removing towels and emptying the trash.
Val O’Brien, the director of housekeeping, admitted she was nervous in the beginning about working with an intern who was visually impaired. But “I’m relaxed now. I can leave her alone and I know she’s able to do it.”
To get the position at the Residence Inn, Natacha had to go through a formal process. She filled out an online application and collected and submitted her I-9 documentation, which was a good experience, said McCormack. “It’s very much what anyone going to work would have to do.”
As the weeks progressed, Natacha gained more confidence in completing her tasks – to the point where her daily check-ins with Perkins job coaches felt like interruptions.
“She’s happiest when the Perkins supports fade and the people who work here are doing the training,” McCormack said. “She’s very proud to work here.”
Chand is thrilled to hear that. Since the Residence Inn opened last year, he’s been working to make the location as accessible as possible to people who are visually impaired. There’s braille throughout the property, which was tested by Perkins students. The Residence Inn also joined the Perkins Business Partnership, an alliance dedicated to breaking down employment barriers for people who are blind.
“We want to make sure this relationship is lasting,” said Chand, who sees opportunities for students to shadow employees at the front desk, as well as train with food and beverage services. “I feel it’s going to be very meaningful for years to come.”