As Perkins School for the Blind’s founding director, Samuel Gridley Howe dreamed that through education people who were blind would be readily accepted into the workforce. In his 1835 Annual Report, Howe noted that the students “pass their time between the school, the work-shop, and the music room. They are occupied from six in the morning, until nine at night…with study, music, or work.”
Two years later, Howe opened a workshop for adults who were blind to make hand-tied mattresses, caned chairs and other products sold through the school. The workshop provided stable employment for adults who were blind – including many Perkins graduates – until 1952.
As with sighted workers, the Great Depression left a number of Perkins alumni out of work. It was during this period that Perkins introduced a vocational guidance program to help students who were blind choose and prepare for careers after graduation. In an effort to provide students with a variety of work experiences, the number of vocational courses taught at Perkins expanded to include poultry farming, agriculture, auto mechanics and typing.
Today, prevocational training and vocational planning are integral components of every student’s transition plan – whether they plan to attend college, work full or part-time, or live in a community home and volunteer. Rather than choosing a single career goal, students today are encouraged to participate in a spectrum of experiences to prepare them for life after Perkins.
Students in Perkins’ Secondary and Deafblind programs can be found working part-time for large retailers like Target and Petco, assisting staff at Faulkner Hospital, and helping out in the lab at Boston University’s Sargent College. Perkins also offers a weekend Pre-Employment Program (PEP) for teens and young adults who are visually impaired as well as Outreach Short Courses that teach Expanded Core Curriculum skills.
While on-campus experiences introduce students to the world of work, off-campus positions help students – and employers – learn what it takes for an individual who is blind or visually impaired to succeed in the workplace today.
Preparing students for future employment is just one part of the equation. Perkins is also trying to make the working world a more welcoming place for people who are blind or visually impaired. Programs like the Perkins Business Partnership, online resources like Paths to Transition and Perkins’ new workplace hub are helping to expand employment opportunities for people with visual impairment. As Samuel Gridley Howe knew almost two centuries ago, with the right education, tools and services, a person who is blind can do almost anything.
For more information about the history of Perkins School for the Blind, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter. See historic photographs of manual arts and vocational training on Flickr.