Participants at the 6th Africa Forum in Uganda gathered to discuss the future of blindness advocacy on the continent.
By BRIAN MESSENGER
The bustling hall, filled with activists, leaders and dignitaries from 56 countries, drew quiet as Perkins President and CEO Dave Power stepped to the podium.
It was a vibrant scene. The brilliant hues and intricate patterns of traditional African dress filled the room with a kaleidoscope of colors. A woman in the front row typed on a braille notetaker, her white cane folded neatly at her feet. Translators sporting headsets gathered in a glass booth near the back, waiting for the keynote address to begin.
There was no better place than this – the world stage – to share the inspiring story of Perkins International.
Representatives from across the globe had convened at the 6th Africa Forum in Kampala, Uganda, to discuss the future of blindness advocacy on the continent, where 8.5 million children and young adults are visually impaired.
Worldwide that figure stands at 46.3 million. It’s a population largely cut off from the education system, with fewer than 10 percent of those children attending school.
That must change, Power proclaimed in his speech.
“The time is now for all of these children and young adults to receive a high-quality education,” he said. “Not just because it is their right, but because they all possess the ability to become productive and engaged members of our communities.”
Six months later, Power’s speech still resonates on the Massachusetts campus of Perkins School for the Blind. And it echoes around the world, in the classrooms, orphanages and rural villages where Perkins International staff work
In 2016, Perkins International is embarking on an ambitious growth strategy to deliver the life-changing power of education to more children and young adults with visual impairment.
It’s time for new ideas, new resources and new leadership, said Power. It’s time for action.
“We’ve already built a sustainable model for the delivery of high-quality education programs for children and young adults with visual impairment,” he said. “Now we’re ready to scale up our efforts and reach a higher percentage of that population.”
Michael Delaney, Perkins International’s new executive director, can’t wait to get started.
He arrived at Perkins in January, his passport brimming with entry and exit stamps from dozens of countries, an ink-smeared reminder of his three decades of global work.
As humanitarian director at Oxfam America, he directed responses to some of the world’s worst conflicts and natural disasters, helping millions of people in the Philippines, Haiti, Sudan and Syria.
Time and again, in the most desperate circumstances, Delaney witnessed the power of the human spirit.
“People are resilient,” he said. “I’ve encountered children who are blind in my travels who literally have no support system beyond their parents. But (the parents are) always willing to do anything for their child, if it means they can have a better life.”
Delaney helped found Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Division, and served as its director for more than 15 years, working to alleviate global poverty, famine and injustice. The Humanitarian Division grew significantly under his tenure, eventually representing one-third of Oxfam America’s program operations and budget.
“Mike knows how to work with local organizations all around the world, building their capacity and ensuring the delivery of vital services,” said Power. “It’s a great fit for us.”
At Perkins International, Delaney will execute a multi-year growth strategy with an ambitious end goal – ensuring that all children and young adults who are blind have access to a high-quality education.
He’s new to blindness education, but Delaney is no stranger to helping vulnerable populations. With the right resources, he believes anything is possible.
“Our mission is to educate the world’s children and young adults with visual impairment,” he said. “There’s plenty of work ahead. But we have the expertise, the track record and the ambition to change the world, one child, one teacher and one program at a time.”
Delaney takes charge of an organization that spent the last 26 years creating a new model for bringing education to children who are blind in underdeveloped countries.
It started in 1989, when Perkins School for the Blind began building a grassroots network of parents and educators in Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Thailand.
Fast forward to today. Perkins International now partners with hundreds of local organizations in dozens of countries spanning the globe.
Together, this worldwide network of educators, parents and government officials works to bring education and hope to children with visual impairment, including those with multiple disabilities and deafblindness.
“When we started there were just nine programs worldwide dedicated to educating children with visual impairment and multiple disabilities,” said Marianne Riggio, a longtime Perkins International staff member. “Our ultimate goal was always to share our knowledge and empower others to make a lasting difference. It’s an approach that works.”
Through trial and error, inspiration and hard work, Perkins International developed a sustainable model that is revolutionizing blindness education around the world.
The model is built on four fundamental strategies: Building partnerships to tap into local skills and resources. Training teachers to boost their skills and effectiveness. Empowering families to be fearless advocates for their children. And advocating for positive change to promote inclusiveness and shatter outdated stereotypes about blindness.
This approach is highly adaptable. There’s no rigid blueprint to follow. Instead, all four strategies work together to spur the development of better schools and services for children who are blind. The model is powered by Perkins’ educational expertise, but what makes it sustainable are the tens of thousands of individuals and activists around the world.
Moving forward, Power envisions the model taking root in more and more places, from Burkina Faso to Bhutan and beyond. It’s a flexible framework that can work wherever children who are blind are denied educational opportunities.
“Every country is dealing with a unique set of circumstances, but the major issues facing children and young adults with visual impairment are the same,” said Power. “They need quality programs staffed by well-trained teachers, they need support at home and they deserve to live in a society that views them as equal. So our model is relevant everywhere.”
Days before traveling to Uganda for the 6th Africa Forum, Power paid a visit to New York City to attend a United Nations summit. World leaders had just adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a sweeping new development framework designed to measurably improve the lives of people all over the globe by 2030.
Delegates at the Africa Forum buzzed about the SDGs and their potential impact on programs and services for Africans who are blind.
Power tapped into that excitement in his keynote address, noting that several SDGs align directly with Perkins International’s mission. For example, both the UN and Perkins want to promote equal access to education for people with disabilities, increase the supply of qualified teachers and help young people develop skills for employment.
Speaking to blindness advocates in Africa and beyond, Power acknowledged that achieving those goals won’t be easy.
“It may take some new, innovative approaches,” he said.
It was no surprise, then, that innovation is the key to Perkins International’s new priorities, which Power announced after arriving back at Perkins’ campus.
“We’re preparing to launch a number of new initiatives,” he said. “Each is designed to improve key aspects of the educational process.”
The initiatives will amp up Perkins International’s efforts to work with local partners, train teachers, empower families and advocate for equality.
Power knows Perkins International is uniquely qualified for this mission. While other international nonprofits and government agencies work to prevent blindness or promote economic development, only Perkins International is focused solely on blindness education.
He also knows it’s time for action.
Until the number of children around the world who are denied educational opportunities because they are blind or multiply disabled reaches zero, Power said, Perkins International’s work is not done.
“We’ve laid the foundation, and now we have to put the other pieces in place,” he said. “There are still millions of children with visual impairment who have no access to education and no chance at a better life. We’re ready to take our mission to the next level.”
Perkins International will launch several new initiatives to improve educational opportunities for children and young adults with visual impairment.
Every country wants to provide high-quality programs to children who are blind. Perkins will help by offering benchmarks to government ministries that want objective data about what they’re doing well and where they can improve.
The strategy is simple: think globally, teach locally. Perkins will offer certified training courses for teachers of the visually impaired, available in multiple languages and customized to fit regional needs. Perkins will harness the power of the Internet to directly deliver to teachers the knowledge and skills they need to help students thrive.
Perkins knows that academics are not enough. To successfully transition to adult life, students who are blind must master life skills, social skills and vocational skills. Perkins will help its global partners develop new, high-quality transition programs for young adults.