Welcome to the real world

At a summer Outreach program, teens and young adults who are blind master essential living skills, from cooking a meal to loading a dishwasher

A student wearing a red shirt and a floral baseball cap uses a knife and cutting board to slice a red pepper at the kitchen table. A teacher sits next to him.

Anderson will be able to impress his parents with his new food preparation skills.

Making beds, folding laundry and chopping vegetables.

These are life skills most teens learn at home through observation, participation and just the right amount of parental nagging.

Add a visual impairment to the mix and those mundane but essential skills can become more challenging to master.

That’s why a dozen visually impaired teens and young adults spent three weeks of their summer vacation attending Perkins School for the Blind’s Outreach program, “Dealing with the Present While Preparing for the Future.”

“We give them a chance to work on things they haven’t had time to work on at home,” said Pat Ryan, coordinator of Outreach Short Courses. “They’re able to work on skills in a natural setting.”

The students lived in residential cottages on Perkins’ Watertown, Massachusetts campus, and spent each day practicing skills necessary for success in school and the real world. Classes in braille, accessible technology and independent navigation were combined with opportunities to clean their rooms, prepare meals and do laundry.

“In a school setting, students are taught skills in isolation, but aren’t given the opportunity to put them all together,” said Ryan. “It’s like a basketball player who’s been taught to dribble, pass, and shoot, but has never played in a game. By using the skills in a practical setting, we’re able to connect the dots for them.”

Preparing a meal was one way the teens learned to connect those daily-living dots while also developing essential skills – from menu planning to money management.

Students wrote shopping lists, travelled to local grocery stores, selected items from the shelves and paid for their purchases. Back at Perkins, they prepped ingredients, cooked the meal and cleaned up afterward.

“A whole day can be built around tasks needed to live, but they’re worked into real-world situations rather than out-of-context in the classroom,” said Ryan.

In the kitchen, Matt, 18, from Newton, Massachusetts, placed chicken strips on a baking sheet before sliding it into a preheated oven. He’s heading into his senior year in high school and then planning to attend music school. To prepare for college, he said, he needs to learn everything from navigating subway stations to cooking for himself.

“The good thing about being here is when you need help, someone is there,” said Matt. “They know their craft and different techniques for (making tasks accessible).”

For students thinking about a future summer job or long-term career, the program offered an opportunity to practice job-search skills.

For example, said Ryan, one student hopes to become a sports broadcaster, so they targeted a major Boston sports talk radio station.

“We can then work on skills like looking up their website for a contact person (for a job interview), figuring if you can set a time to go visit, and arranging transportation,” he said. “Different students can participate in all these activities, so it turns into an instructional activity for everyone.”

Fun was also built into the schedule. During the day, teens tried their hand at canoeing and horseback riding, and in the evening belted out karaoke and played fiercely competitive games of UNO. Some recreational activities did double duty. Students were sent on a scavenger hunt for donuts and ice cream, which gave them a sweet incentive to independently navigate through the community.

After three weeks in the program, the students had one final assignment – go home and impress their parents with their new skills and confidence.

“They can now be more active participants in their household,” said Ryan. “They can go shopping and pay at checkout, clear their own plate or load the dishwasher. They can do something they weren’t doing before.”