Lawmakers hear from blindness community at advocacy event

Annual B.L.I.N.D. event shines spotlight on crucial state-funded services for residents with visual impairments

A young woman who is blind speaks to an older man as people look on.

High school junior Eliza Barmakian chats with Brian MacDonald, President of the National Braille Press, at the B.L.I.N.D. event.

March 17, 2017

Belmont High School junior Eliza Barmakian hasn’t always been at peace with her visual impairment.

“I perceived it as a weakness,” she said on Thursday. “I thought that if I acted like nothing was wrong, it would be that way.”

Barmakian was speaking to a crowd of more than 100 state legislators, blindness advocates and members of the visually impaired community. They were gathered for Blind Legislative Information and Networking Day (B.L.I.N.D.), an annual advocacy event held at the Massachusetts State House in Boston.

What changed her perspective, Barmakian said, was a program offered by Perkins School for the Blind. It was the Pre-Employment Program (PEP), a 10-week workshop that teaches young adults with visual impairment the skills to get and keep a job.

To educate students like Barmakian in public schools and on its Watertown campus, Perkins receives funding from the state through school districts, as well as from the state’s special education circuit breaker fund.

At the PEP workshops held at Perkins, Barmakian learned how to ace a job interview and craft a resume. She also learned that her blindness isn’t a weakness she had to hide.

“They taught me to embrace my visual impairment,” she said. “They taught me that if you do, it helps you advocate better for yourself.”

This was Barmakian’s first time attending the B.L.I.N.D. event, which gives Massachusetts residents who are blind or visually impaired the opportunity to speak up about programs or services that are important to them, many of which are at least partially funded by the state.

In her remarks, Catherine Duffek, a retired diversity officer, implored lawmakers to continue funding services at the Perkins Library, which provides patrons with accessible reading materials like braille, large print and audio books.

Duffek was born with congenital glaucoma, and lost her ability to read print as an adult. Thanks to audio books from the Perkins Library, she’s reading more than ever, and has even started a book discussion group.

“The only rule for this group was that any book we picked must be available in an audio format so that I could participate,” she said. “And because of the number of valuable hours that the volunteer narrators at the Perkins Library have spent (recording) books, every book we have picked has been available for me.”

Many state legislators stopped by to hear their constituents speak, including Senator Patricia Jehlen, who was honored with the 2017 B.L.I.N.D. Award for her work on behalf of braille education. After accepting the award, Jehlen offered encouragement to the audience.

“I want to say how important your activism is in educating people who are not as fully aware of what people’s needs and opportunities are,” she said. “Keep going.”

In the afternoon, Barmakian and other B.L.I.N.D. event participants heeded Jehlen’s advice, fanning out across the State House to visit their state representatives face to face. Barmakian was excited to advocate for the Pre-Employment Program, knowing that without adequate funding, that kind of program might not be available to students who need it.

“Everyone with a visual impairment has the ability to succeed, it’s just that sometimes we need a little help getting there,” she said. “We need a program to inspire us, we need technology to assist us and we need people to support us.”