As a high school student growing up with low vision, Antoine Laham never envisioned a future for himself in education.
“I really didn’t like being in school, I was always more of a work person,” he recalled. “I never thought I would work in a school system, that’s for sure.”
Of course, that’s just where he ended up. After getting his start as a substitute teacher, Laham accepted a full-time position as a teaching assistant at Perkins School for the Blind in 2013. A few years later, he has no regrets.
“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” he said laughing.
As an organization, Perkins employs more than 800 people to help carry out its mission of educating children who are blind. About three dozen of those employees, including Laham, are themselves blind or visually impaired. They work side by side with their sighted colleagues in classrooms and offices across campus, contributing to the vibrancy and diversity of the Perkins workforce.
“It’s always good to have a variety of perspectives, a variety of ideas and thoughts,” said Human Resources Director Julie DeLillo. “That’s what keeps us innovating. If we don’t have those differences we tend to get stuck where we are.”
DeLillo credits staff members who are blind with helping Perkins to practice what it preaches. When something isn’t accessible – whether it’s a building entrance or a payroll form – she hears about it.
“It’s made us take a look at ourselves,” she said. “We teach other people about accessibility and awareness but in some ways we ourselves haven’t perfected it.”
A job with meaning
After a few years of bouncing from job to job, Wen Lo is finally doing work he believes in.
“I wake up in the morning and know that what I’m doing has meaning,” he said.
As an accountant for Perkins Solutions, the technology division of Perkins, Lo prepares financial statements and analyzes data. He tracks profits accrued through the sale of assistive technology and oversees large equipment purchases for the department’s manufacturing operations.
Lo is blind in his left eye, but has some usable vision in his right. To analyze spreadsheets, he uses ZoomText, a software program that magnifies words and numbers on his screen to more than twice their normal size.
In the past, Lo worked in public policy and community health, as well as in the private sector for a health insurance company – a stint he refers to as his “trip to the dark side.” In each position, he took on greater levels of responsibility, working his way up from tax strategist to accounting manager.
The variety of experiences made him a more well-rounded person and a better employee, he said.
“I’ve seen different things and I’ve worked with different people,” he said. “I’ve done a lot in my life and it’s helped me be more open-minded – I understand when you look at something that you have to think about it from other people’s perspective as well.”
At Perkins, Lo said he’s found a mission worth supporting. Profits made by Perkins Solutions support educational programming on campus, and braillers manufactured at Perkins help promote literacy among students who are blind in developing countries.
“There’s no such thing as the perfect job or the perfect life,” Lo said. “But I feel more fulfilled than I have in years.”
Connecting with students
In Kate Crohan’s classroom, teaching is a two-way street.
“I’m not embarrassed to say that I learn things from students,” said the veteran teacher. “They spend so much time with technology. We’re always exchanging information.”
Crohan has taught technology at Perkins for the past eight years, helping students learn to communicate and organize information on a variety of devices. Some, like the braille notetaker, are designed specifically for users with visual impairment. But Crohan also teaches students to use the built-in accessibility features on their iPhones and iPads.
“There’s no way not to teach the iPhone anymore,” she said. “It has so many apps that are blindness related, whether it’s a reading app or an app that will help you stay organized. It’s an incredible tool.”
Crohan has been completely blind since birth, and is an avid user of braille and assistive technology in her everyday life. In many ways, this has made learning and teaching her subject easier, she said.
“I keep telling some of the (technology) teachers who have vision, ‘I don’t know how you guys do it,’” she said. “I live this stuff, I use it.”
Over the course of her teaching career, Crohan has taught braille and independent living skills to adults as well as students who are blind in public schools. At Perkins, she teaches high school-age students in the Secondary Program, many of whom are thirsty for information about her life as a blind adult.
“They’re always asking me about my dog, my children, asking, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’” she said, smiling. “I feel like we can communicate on a slightly different level because we all do share blindness and visual impairment.”
Willing to Work
Before landing her current role as a braille production specialist at the Perkins Library, Tanja Milojevic tried other career paths.
As a college student, she interned in the constituent services department at the Massachusetts State House, and assisted with research projects at WGBH, Boston’s public radio station. She worked summers at the Carroll Center for the Blind and even interviewed for a job at Verizon.
“By the time I graduated I really had experience under my belt to show employers I was willing to work and learn,” she said. “It really helped me move forward in the job search.”
Milojevic’s tenacity earned her an internship at the Perkins Library that turned into a full-time job a year later. One of the Library’s youngest employees, she and her guide dog Wendell have settled in quickly.
“What I enjoy most is that there’s camaraderie amongst everyone,” she said. “It’s like a family. Everyone’s very thoughtful and connected.”
Milojevic, who has low vision, produces braille documents for outside clients – her projects range from restaurant menus and church bulletins to letters and informational flyers. She uses a computer program to convert text to electronic braille, and an embosser to create hard copies. She proofreads each document using a braille display connected to her computer.
It’s a job she expects to enjoy for years to come.
“I’m lucky, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and see what happens,” she said. “I don’t know what life’s going to bring but it’s good to be somewhere I feel comfortable.”
At home at Perkins
Of all the skills Antoine Laham has mastered since becoming a teaching assistant at Perkins, patience has garnered the best results. By being patient, he’s gained the trust of students with behavioral issues, even convincing one student to walk after months of refusing to move on his own.
“Whenever he sat down I was like, ‘OK, we’ll take a break for two minutes and you can try again,’” Laham recalled. “You just keep going and eventually they’re like, ‘Well, I guess I have to walk or I’m not going to get to my destination.’”
Laham works with a small group of students in the Lower School, teaching counting, shapes and basic life skills. Whenever he can, he incorporates music into his lessons, watching the students tap their feet to the beat.
“That’s my favorite part – the reaction you get from the kids,” he said. “Seeing them be really, really happy.”
When crafting activities, Laham finds that his visual impairment allows him to see things from a student’s perspective. As someone with low vision, he knows which high-contrast color combinations will encourage engagement, and vice versa.
“I understand where the kids are coming from 90 percent of the time vision-wise,” he said. “If an object’s on something that blends in, I know it blends in because it doesn’t look good to me.”
He can also relate to older students on campus. Some of them remind him of himself – the high schooler who didn’t want to use a white cane.
“I try to be a role model,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Hey, when I was your age I didn’t want to do those things either, but trust me, it’ll be good for you when you get older.’ Eventually they get it.”
There’s one other thing Laham likes about his job – the fact that his skills and work ethic get more attention than his visual impairment.
His colleagues, like Wen Lo in accounting, say that’s how it should be.
“There is no difference between me and any other employee,” said Lo. “I just don’t have sight in one eye.”