Perkins alumnus Tony DeBlois plays a keyboard as he performs live on KSFY television in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
By Bill Winter
Whenever professional musician Tony DeBlois embarks on a concert tour, he uses a skill he learned at Perkins School for the Blind.
It’s a simple skill most sighted kids learn by observation. But since DeBlois is blind, he had to be taught, step-by-step, by his teachers.
That lesson was how to pack a suitcase.
DeBlois laughs when he thinks about it. “Now I travel, doing concerts all over the world,” he said. He packs and unpacks his suitcase more often than he ever would have guessed as a youngster at Perkins.
DeBlois is just one of many former students whose lives were changed by Perkins. The school, they say, gave them the knowledge, skills and confidence they needed to follow their dreams.
For three Perkins alumni, those dreams led to a surprising range of jobs – from musician to small-business owner to braille menu transcriber. Each of those jobs has a connection to Perkins.
Music came naturally to DeBlois. He started playing piano at age 2 and took piano lessons at age 5. Today he’s literally a one-man band. He can play 22 instruments, including harmonica, violin, saxophone and ukulele.
DeBlois was born prematurely, and was diagnosed with blindness and autism. He also has musical savant syndrome – he has perfect pitch and can play any melody after hearing it once.
DeBlois came to Perkins in 1983, when he was 9 years old. The school nurtured his musical talent, giving him lessons in violin, trumpet, drums and singing. He took after-school lessons in jazz theory at the nearby Rivers School Conservatory.
DeBlois also learned practical skills. As part of his vocational training at Perkins, he worked behind the counter at the student snack bar. “I learned how to count money and how to use a register,” he said – while also learning how to interact with customers.
Those skills came in handy. Today, as a performing musician, he works at his merchandise table after concerts. With Janice DeBlois, his mother and manager, he sells CDs of his music to fans.
DeBlois received a certificate of achievement from Perkins in 1995, and went on to graduate from the Berklee College of Music.
Now 42, DeBlois has released eight CDs and performed concerts in China, Ireland, Nigeria and other countries. His life story was made into a CBS movie of the week entitled “Journey of the Heart.”
In September, DeBlois embarks on a 30-day tour. He starts in Connecticut and will travel to South Dakota, performing solo concerts. At each stop, he’ll use what may be the second most important skill he learned at Perkins – packing a suitcase.
It started with broken chairs. It’s grown into a thriving business.
That’s the quick version of how Mark Remaly, a 1970 graduate of Perkins, ended up running the Seat Weaver, a popular store in downtown Westfield, Massachusetts, that sells a variety of unique items made by local craftsmen.
The business owes its start to a skill Remaly learned while a student at Perkins in the 1960s – chair caning. Using his sense of touch, he learned how to repair the woven cane seats in wooden chairs. He found he liked working with his hands and making broken things whole.
“There’s the enjoyment of the finished product, but there’s also the enjoyment of just doing it,” he said.
After he graduated, Remaly started a chair repair business from his home. He opened the Seat Weaver in 2009 with his wife Alice Flyte. Just three years later, they moved the store to a larger location as customers flocked to buy handcrafted items like pottery, soaps, scarves and honey.
“People found they liked the unique things that were locally made,” Flyte said.
Chair repair is still an important part of the business, and Remaly offers classes in chair caning, passing on the old-fashioned craft to a new generation.
The skills Remaly learned as a teenager – and honed over the next four decades – have also earned him a reputation as a master craftsman. He’s proud that he was asked by the Harriet Beecher Stowe museum in Hartford, Connecticut, to repair a historic 1870 chair for a display.
“I really enjoy my life,” Remaly said. “I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.”
Tanny Labshere does her job on a keyboard – the six-key keyboard of a Perkins SMART Brailler®.
Labshere, a 2000 graduate of Perkins, is an entrepreneur who produces braille menus for local restaurants. She lives at Riverbrook Residence, Inc., a community for women with developmental disabilities in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Labshere knows how important her work is. She makes it possible for people with visual impairments to independently read restaurant menus.
“I take great pride in my work converting menus and material with 100 percent accuracy,” she said.
The idea for the business came from a Riverbrook employee who wanted to take Labshere to lunch at a nearby restaurant a few years ago. Wouldn’t it be great, she asked the owner, if Tanny could read her own menu in braille?
“Tanny got right on board with that,” said Workforce Development Director Colleen Powers, who helps Labshere find new clients.
But the real roots of Labshere’s business go back to Perkins, which she attended from age 10 to 21. It was there she learned to read and write braille, and, more importantly, got hands-on vocational experience. She learned customer service skills working at the student snack bar, and learned the importance of attention to detail at Perkins Solutions, where she assembled brailler components.
She uses all those skills when she’s creating braille menus for popular Western Massachusetts restaurants like The Red Lion Inn, Mazzeos Ristorante, Main St. Café and others.
After delivering a menu to a client, Labshere takes it for a test run.
“We sit down to lunch or dinner, and Tanny is able to read her own menu because she just brailled the menu,” Powers said. “And she picks out whatever she wants to eat.”
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