Students and staff at Institución Sullai in Córdoba offered a festive welcome for visitors from Perkins School for the Blind.
By Bill Winter
On the fifth day of his visit to Argentina, Perkins President and CEO Dave Power had an “aha” moment. It was one of many during a trip full of surprises and insights.
He was standing on a dirt street in the town of Rio Cuarto, looking at an outdoor steel staircase. At the top of the stairs, behind a white door, was the woman he had come to visit. She was visually impaired and had a young daughter who was deafblind with additional disabilities.
Power stared at those steep, narrow stairs.
“There are two reactions you have,” he said, reflecting on that day after returning to the United States. “One is, you’re in a poor part of the world. The staircase is totally inaccessible. The tread is too steep for any kind of (building) code we have around here. How the heck she gets up and down the steps with her 2-year-old daughter…” He trailed off. “It’s incredible.”
“But the other thing that strikes you is how much it’s like here,” Power continued. “It’s the same issues. Families supporting their children who are visually impaired. That’s everywhere.”
Those two reactions help explain why Power and a leadership team from Perkins School for the Blind journeyed 5,000 miles to visit Argentina.
Every family impacted by blindness faces unique challenges. Yet the tried-and-tested methods for helping children who are blind are universal, and can be successfully applied anywhere in the world. That’s certainly the case in Argentina, where Perkins International has supported local partner organizations who serve children with MDVI (multiple disabilities and visual impairment) since 1989.
Those partners have built a flourishing network of model schools, teacher-training programs, support groups for families and relentless advocacy. Those four factors make up the Perkins International model the American visitors had come to see in action.
“Perkins has a development model that is about strengthening the local infrastructure,” said Kathy Sheehan, executive director of the Perkins Trust. “That’s a very effective model for development. But it’s hard to describe the impact. This trip was a chance to see how all of these pieces fit together.”
In addition to Power and Sheehan, the Perkins group included Corinne Grousbeck, chair of the Board of Trustees; Philip L. Ladd, trustee and chair of the International Committee; Lisa Calise, chief financial officer; and Gloria Rodriguez-Gil, regional coordinator for Latin America.
They were accompanied by Graciela Ferioli, who works in Perkins’ Argentina office and is regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Over the course of a whirlwind week, the group toured Córdoba Province and visited many of Perkins’ 11 local partners. What emerged was a picture of how Perkins’ support, expertise and training – plus a strategic sprinkling of funding – has energized MDVI education in the region.
“We empower the partners,” said Rodriguez-Gil. “They have become experts in the field, and have been able to develop their own style and personality.”
The courtyard was alive with sound and color. Students sang and pounded on oversized drums. They were dressed in colorful vests – flamboyant reds, yellows and greens – decorated with glittery beads and bold geometric shapes.
Other students danced in the center of the courtyard, holding staffers’ arms for guidance. People on the sidelines joined in, dancing and clapping to the beat. The joyful sounds echoed off whitewashed walls and the red clay-tiled floor in the sun-dappled rectangle.
This was the Perkins group’s introduction to Institución Sullai in Córdoba. It was co-founded in 1994 by two mothers of children with blindness and multiple disabilities. Today, over 100 students and young adults are enrolled at the private school, and it has grown to include a day center and group home for adults who are deafblind. It also provides training to 43 other schools in Argentina.
Model schools like Sullai, which Perkins has supported since 1996, serve as “centers of excellence,” said Rodriguez-Gil, and show other schools how to provide high-quality education for children with MDVI.
“They’re very clear on their mission,” she said. “Everyone is very committed to the children. They have a very clear understanding of why they are there.”
Teach a student and you change a life. Teach a teacher and you can change thousands of lives.
That’s the thinking behind Perkins’ initiative to train teachers of the visually impaired. The visitors saw the life-changing impact of that program every time they met a graduate of Perkins’ Educational Leadership Program (ELP) in Argentina.
The ELP is a nine-month educational program for teachers and other blindness professionals from developing nations, held on Perkins’ campus in Massachusetts. Since 1989, more than 250 people have graduated from the program, including a dozen from Argentina. They returned home to serve as principals of schools, teachers in classrooms, government officials, university professors and more.
“What really impressed me was our ELPs,” said Sheehan. “I hadn’t grasped the leadership roles that a number of the formers ELPs have, and how innovative they are.”
Power and others also traveled to two of Córdoba’s most prestigious universities to explore another critical aspect of teacher training – online classes.
At the Catholic University of Córdoba, where stately brick buildings overlook expansive grassy lawns, Power met with faculty from the Education Sciences department. The university offers an online class that helps educators prepare students with disabilities for a successful transition to adult life.
The class, a joint project with Perkins, offers nine study segments with short videos, reading assignments and online study groups. The class lacks state-of-the-art interactive elements, but it’s still groundbreaking, said Power.
“Online education is actually happening,” he said. “It’s drawing in siblings and teachers and adult-services individuals, because it’s the topic of transition. It’s a low-tech solution, but powerful.”
Another nearby college, the Instituto de Educación Superior Dr. Domingo Cabred, offers an online class that trains teachers to work with students with MDVI. That class was also developed in conjunction with Perkins and its local partners.
When Power eventually climbed those steep, almost inaccessible steel stairs he saw in Rio Cuarto, he met a mother who exemplified the power of parents.
The woman had albinism and was visually impaired. However, that didn’t stop her from caring for her 2-year-old daughter – or from navigating that precarious staircase whenever necessary.
“She is someone who grew up visually impaired,” said Power. “She was very shy and withdrawn. It was having her daughter that made her decide, ‘I now need to be the strong one.’ So now she goes out and shops. She’s the one taking care of her daughter. Amazing!”
Power sat in the woman’s modest home as her daughter, who is medically fragile and can’t attend school, received services from ACIPDIM, the Civil Association of Parents of Persons with Deafblindness and Multiple Disabilities in Argentina. The nonprofit, which Perkins supports, runs a rural education program and supports children and parents.
Mothers and fathers have real muscle in Argentina. Parents founded two of the country’s best-known schools for children with MDVI, the Institución Sullai and the Institución Fátima in Buenos Aires. Parents also launched a national organization for parents of children who are deafblind. “The parents are the driving force,” said Rodriguez-Gil. “They’re the one who have the child with disabilities. They are the ones who push for the change.”
But change doesn’t happen without a fight, so activists in Córdoba Province have learned to advocate for children with MDVI.
At a dinner in the Amaranto Restaurant in Rio Cuarto, the Perkins visitors met Maria Laura Tommei, president of the national parents’ organization. She told them about a campaign to demand better transportation for children who are disabled, including her son, Gonzalo, who is deafblind.
They also discussed another, broader aspect of advocacy. It’s changing public perceptions about blindness and people with MDVI – and Argentinian parents and organizations do that, too.
“It made me realize that we parents of blind children – everywhere – are connected by having the same goals, motivations and desires for our children,” said Grousbeck. “We just want society to make a place for them so they can live their fullest and most rewarding lives.”
In seven jam-packed days in Argentina, the Perkins visitors met an unforgettable group of teachers, principals, parents and students. They saw all the elements of the Perkins International model in action – high-quality model schools, well-trained teachers, support for families and energetic advocacy.
They returned home with renewed determination to bring the kind of progress they saw in Córdoba Province to millions of other children around the world with MDVI.
“Education for all is the mission,” said Power. “The problems are the same all over the world. People are dealing with, ‘What do I do with a child who is visually impaired, particularly with multiple disabilities?’ It’s the same issues, all around the world. So our model is relevant everywhere.”