Charlotte Cushman oral history

Charlotte Cushman came to Perkins in 1982 and has since worked as a head houseparent, classroom teacher, consultant for Perkins International and New England Center Deafblind Project, and web manager. She also helped establish the Perkins Archives in 2011.

Charlotte Cushman with ocean in background

Biographical information

Charlotte Cushman came to Perkins School for the Blind in 1982 as a teaching assistant and an assistant houseparent in Lower School. During breaks from working at Perkins, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, Africa and worked in an orphanage in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. While at Perkins, Cushman worked as a classroom teacher, a consultant for Perkins International in Asia and Africa, a consultant for the New England Center Deafblind Project, and as the Digital Projects Manager. She was also project manager for Paths to Literacy and Perkins eLearning. As both an educator and trained Archivist, she helped establish the Perkins Archives in 2011. Cushman was also one of the coauthors of the Perkins Activity and Resource Guide (both editions) and has presented at conferences and trainings throughout the United States and internationally.

Related resources

Resources listed include materials on the Internet Archive website which relies on OCR to make resources accessible. We acknowledge that OCR is prone to errors, and cannot recognize graphics or handwritten text, thus creating barriers to these materials. If these materials aren’t accessible in part or in whole, to a user because of a disability, please contact [email protected] to request an accessible version. 

Notice and permissions

This interview was recorded virtually for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on September 4, 2019, by Archivist Susanna Coit. The audio and transcript are provided unedited.

This oral history transcript may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind. For permission please contact [email protected].

Preferred citation

Cushman, Charlotte “Charlotte Cushman oral history interview conducted by Susanna Coit,” 2019-09-04, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG176-2019-02, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

Audio recording

Recording of the oral history of Charlotte Cushman.


Susanna Coit: Today is September 4, 2019. This is Susanna Coit. I’m here with Charlotte Cushman, the Project Manager of Paths to Literacy. And we are conducting this interview via phone. Charlotte, are you OK with me recording this conversation?  

Charlotte Cushman: Yes, I am. 

Coit: OK, so first of all, can you tell me what years you were at Perkins– or are? 

Cushman: I started working at Perkins in 1982. And it’s hard to believe that’s 37 years now. I have come and gone lots of times over the years. 

The first time I left, I went to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa. And then I came back to Perkins, said I left again to join the Peace Corps and work in Malawi and Africa. And then after coming back to Perkins again, I left to go get another master’s degree in library and information science, and now, I am back at Perkins again. 

Coit: Can you tell me what you did with Mother Teresa? 

Cushman: I was working in her orphanages. And that really was the call to me to go back and get a teaching certificate because I was volunteering with a lot of children who had disabilities and felt that I wanted to really know what I was talking about in order to be training people or helping in any kind of a tangible way. 

Coit: Wow. So how did you first come to Perkins? 

Cushman: Well, this was way back in the day when people looked for jobs in the print newspaper. So I had been working at a school for children with special needs in Maine. And it had just closed down, so I was combing the Boston Globe, the Sunday Boston Globe, and saw a tiny advertisement for a job at Perkins. And since I’d worked with kids with disabilities, it kind of caught my attention, even though I hadn’t worked with anyone who was blind or visually impaired. 

And I had recently read the book Helen and Teacher by Joseph Lash, which is a story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. So I felt very inspired and idealistic to apply for a job at Perkins. 

Coit: And can you describe job and the responsibilities when you first started working here? 

Cushman: Yes, I was a teaching assistant and an assistant houseparent in Lower School. So I was living and working in Bradlee Cottage. I lived in the cottage and was responsible for getting the children up, and dressed, and fed. And I also worked in the classroom, where I became very interested in the techniques of teaching students who are blind. 

After school and in the evenings, I planned recreational activities for the kids and really enjoyed figuring out how to adapt games and toys for them. And even though we were officially on duty for just eight hours a day, living in the cottage on campus really meant that our lives were completely intertwined with the lives of the students. 

Coit: Yeah, and how did you become a teacher and to work with students who are blind? You sort of talked about your work in Maine. 

Cushman: Yeah. I’d always wanted to be a teacher of students with special needs. And when I was a teaching assistant at Perkins, I got really interested in going on to get the training I needed to become a teacher. And since right now, or at that point anyway, most students with visual impairments have additional disabilities, I went on to get two different graduate programs to get the training I needed, one in special needs, and one specifically in vision. 

Coit: And so I know you also worked in the archives at Perkins. Can you tell me about how the archives got started at Perkins and what role you played? 

Cushman: Sure. The archives have a long history at Perkins. And initially, this was not a formal job or formal collections, but people have been holding onto things and setting them aside since the school was founded, or even before the school was founded. And a number of the research librarians really took on this role, notably Ken Stuckey. I believe I was the first one who was specifically trained and experienced as an archivist to take the job, which means that I looked at some of the ways in which the really rich collections of Perkins could have the attention of the current standards in the fields. 

So I was originally hired to create some digital collections online for Perkins. And that was in 2011. And at that time, there was no online presence for the archives or the collections. So I created a simple website where we could begin to get the word out about some of the real gems in our collections. And our budget was really limited, and there were no guidelines, really, for getting started, so I just kind of jumped in. 

I contacted the Boston Public Library because I’d been really impressed by their use of Flickr to share some of their collections. And I was lucky enough to connect with Tom Blake, who’s been enormously helpful ever since we started this project. So soon after that, we hired Molly Stothert-Maurer, who’d been one of my volunteers at the library archives where I was working in Arizona when she was a student there. And she was interested in the archives and later became the archivist at Perkins.

As I mentioned, there wasn’t really anything in place when I started. So I tried to set up a lot of basic systems. I created an advisory board to collaborate with other archives and some of the key stakeholders and institutions that are in the field. I connected us to the Internet Archive so that we could begin to share our collections more widely. 

One of the things you know when you’re actually looking at the collections at Perkins is that we have treasures. So the question is really, how do we make those more widely known? 

I also expanded a lot of policies as our needs and issues changed. So for example, once we started to have an online presence, we suddenly had a lot of policies that we needed to create right away, like setting up guidelines for how to use our materials, permissions, payment for the use of images. All of those things had not really been issues because people– or not on that scale anyway — because people hadn’t really known what we had. 

Jan Seymour-Ford, who had been the research librarian at the time, really did a great deal to try to get a lot of things in place. But she had another big job just running the library. But she created a shelf list inventory. And really, there were a lot of things we didn’t know were there or where they were, so we really built on her work to try to identify all of the collections we held. And we had many, many, many duplicates, particularly of Perkins publications, so it was important to identify those. 

We also had to really look immediately at our biggest preservation needs because that really had never been done. And this was really across all formats. We had oil paintings, and film, of course lots of paper and photographs, many instructional materials. And none of these things had had what would be the field standard of archival storage or preservation, so we knew we needed to really pay some close attention to that and to provide some level of access as quickly as possible. 

So the next thing that happened was I wrote a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2012. And Perkins had been turned down for that grant twice before. And it was kind of a catch-22. We didn’t have an archivist on staff, so they didn’t want to give us the money since we didn’t have an archivist. But we couldn’t hire an archivist because we didn’t have the money to hire an archivist. So it was kind of a crazy loop. 

But finally, in 2012, we were awarded the grant. And that really enabled us to dig in a lot more seriously. So we immediately set to work on processing collections, and creating finding aids, and posting them online, and trying to identify those key preservation issues. Were the reels of film that we had about to burst into flame? Were we losing images on some of the negatives and lantern slides that we had– I mean, just things where we needed to figure that stuff out immediately. 

As I said, we wanted to organize collections. And we found that there would be parts of a collection might be scattered throughout the archives space so that there would be seven shelves away from another set. So trying to just identify what was holding together as a collection took quite a while. 

And during that time, and really up to the present, we were incredibly lucky to have some excellent volunteers, especially Sue and Larry Melander. And I wanted to just say how wonderful that was because Larry was actually the one who first hired me at Perkins. He was my supervisor, my first supervisor. 

So to be able to then kind of hire him as an assistant to me– I mean, I say that kind of facetiously because he’d been working on the photos for a while. But I really know Larry, and I know– and his wife Sue– how careful he is. So they set to work doing some transcription, particularly of our correspondence because there was no searchable index to that correspondence, not digitally anyway. And so when people would ask, did we have letters from so-and-so, we had no idea. So they spent many years working at that, and it’s just been fabulous now that we have access to all that. 

And one more small thing I did was starting up a quarterly newsletter because we really wanted to keep people up to date on what we were doing. And it just thrills me to see how much has happened in the archives since I’ve left that position and that there is a full-time archivist and an assistant archivist. It’s just wonderful. And things just keep surprising me that there are still discoveries that are being made. 

Coit: Yeah. So what was your favorite– or what is your favorite item in the collection? Or your favorite collection? I know it’s hard to choose sometimes. 

Cushman: Oh very, very hard to choose. I mean, I have to say that the work around Laura Bridgman, to me is some of the most interesting material in the archives. And I think because Laura Bridgman, who is considered to be the first person in the United States who is deafblind to receive a formal education, lived 50 years prior to Helen Keller. I just am amazed that so few people have heard of her or give attention to her education and her incredible intelligence and talent. And I felt like being able to actually put my hands on some of those things and really study what Samuel Gridley Howe had done to educate her fascinated me as an educator, as well as an archivist. So that’s huge. 

I could go on and on about other collections that I love. I think that if I can just say one more, I think the earliest days of the founding of the school and the way that it really fit into the social-reform movement of Boston the 19th century– I think that’s incredibly interesting and not well known. So just seeing the connections to you know Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens and Dorthea Dix– all these luminaries, really, I think, shows what a pivotal role Perkins played in the larger cultural context at the time. 

Coit: Can you tell me more about how you got into archives and sort of how you became an archivist? 

Cushman: Sure. My family had a significant collection of materials related to Mark Twain because my great grandfather was his official biographer and literary executor. So I kind of grew up with my crayons with Mark Twain’s card table there and things like that. And so it was kind of in my blood on some level. 

And as I went through my great grandfather’s papers and collections, I got really interested in the importance of these collections from a historical perspective. And since I come from a family of librarians and academicians, I think I was always interested in libraries and archives. 

When I went back to library school, I started working in the Special Collections Library at the University of Arizona. And then I was completely hooked. When I went to library school, I was thinking, man, maybe I’ll work in a public library, there are a lot of things I’m interested in. But once I started working with collections, I really had the bug, so really focused more on my coursework in archives. 

And then I was lucky enough to get an internship at the Library of Congress. And I worked in the American Folklife Center there for four months. And their collections were amazing. And as an intern, they let me prowl around in all the different parts of the library– some of different parts of the library– it’s a very big library– but the manuscripts, and the photographs, and the maps. And so again, I was just loving it. 

And after that, I did get a job managing library and archives in Tucson and wrote a number of grants there, was working with a lot of organizations just learning about creating digital collections. So I did quite a bit of that in Arizona before getting hired by Perkins. 

Coit: Great. So how did you end up becoming the Project Manager of Paths to Literacy? Can you tell me a little bit about Paths to Literacy? 

Cushman: Sure. Well, one big aspect of library school now, as you know, is information architecture. So in library school, I’ve learned a lot about how to structure and organize information, and also, basic HTML coding. And Perkins had been looking at creating a website on literacy, and Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired had been looking at doing the same thing. And so we decided to collaborate and create something together. 

And in 2010, Betsy McGinnity, who was the head of the Training and Educational Resources Program at the time, asked me if I’d be interested in creating a website on literacy. And that was just my dream. I designed the site and worked with the developer to lay the foundation. 

And since we launched it in the last seven years, we’ve had more than a million and a half unique visitors to the site from 228 countries. And we have hundreds of thousands of visitors on our social-media platforms. I think people are really drawn by, it’s a lot of practical ideas for teachers, and families, and related services, like speech therapists and so forth, to work with– or ideas to use with students or children who are blind or visually impaired, including those who are deafblind or who have multiple disabilities. 

And all of it’s available for free, which I think is a wonderful service that Perkins is being able to offer. And again, it’s a joint project with Texas School for the Blind. So I think that’s given it some– it gives a kind of a special role. It’s not a competitive place for the field. It’s really a collaborative place. 

And as a result, most of our content is user generated, meaning that people send me their ideas. And it’s a joy to open my email and find ideas from people around the world. For example, just this week, I’m working with the parent of a six-year-old in Slovenia. Her son is totally blind, and she’s putting together some ideas. 

I’ve got an assistive technologist, a specialist in California who’s just submitted something this week. So it’s kind of the whole gamut of families, of teachers, and they’re from all around the world. And to me, it’s such a privilege to be working on the site. 

Coit: So what do you feel have been the most important changes at Perkins since you’ve been here? 

Cushman: Well, you know I really have to– it betrays my age. I mean, the biggest difference, for sure, is that when I started working at Perkins, there was no internet and no email. And I know that’s impossible for people who were born as digital natives to really grasp. But it makes a huge difference in the role of Perkins and the way the business is done. 

So we’re able to share our ideas and resources so much more widely, and more quickly, and less expensively. So being able to support teachers, and families, and others around the world with training and resources is just the biggest change. 

I guess one other thing I wanted to mention also is that in recent years, there’s been a move from having an educator as the head of Perkins to having a CEO or a business person at the helm. And I think that also reflects the fact that Perkins is reaching beyond its original mission as a school. And now the school is just one aspect of the institution as a whole. 

Coit: Yeah. It’s changed over the years for sure. Who have been some of the most memorable staff members at Perkins? And why do you think they’re memorable? 

Cushman: Well, it’s a long list. But I have two people that I wanted to highlight. One who really stands out is Ken Stuckey. And he was the reference librarian for many, many years– 33 years, I think. 

And he had an enormous amount of information in his head and was able to locate items in the library, even when the collections didn’t look like they were organized in any kind of visible way. I mean, there were stacks of books kind of cascading onto the floor, kind of cascading over and stuffed in every corner. And he could just put his hands on anything. He also has a delightful British accent, and his passion, passion for his work in the field is absolutely irresistible. So he was a great figure for the staff, for the students, for the alumni for many, many, many years. 

And another one who stands out that I wanted to mention is a woman by the name of Mary McDonough. And she came to Perkins from Ireland and was the Head of Residential Services for decades. And she had very high standards. And for those of us in our 20s, it just made us roll our eyes. But the older I get and the more years that go by, the more I really value and respect what she would say to us. 

For example, she was very fussy about the kids’ appearance. And their shirts had to be tucked in, and ironed, and so forth. And I thought she was just being a fussy old fuddy-dud. And she really explained that the students that we serve at Perkins, who were blind visually impaired, especially with additional disabilities, have so many strikes against them that their appearance is an important thing to emphasize. And I just love the transformation that happened in my mind as a result of her instruction that she wasn’t being fussy. She was actually being incredibly respectful to the children and helping to give them a better base as they entered the world. 

Coit: What are some of the most interesting or important events since you’ve been at Perkins? 

Cushman: I think that the centennial of the Perkins kindergarten in 1987 really stands out. At the time, I don’t think I fully appreciated how extraordinary it was for young children who are blind or visually impaired to have access to education. And it was something that I just took for granted, as I am sure most Americans do. But that centennial really raised my awareness of how important the role of Perkins has been in establishing, and expanding services, and raising expectations for children with visual impairments. Like, these kids could go to kindergarten, the same as any child, and to have that celebrated was just a wonderful consciousness raising for me. 

Coit: And did you participate in that celebration, or that centennial? 

Cushman: Yeah. it was lots of fun. And you know I don’t know what Michael Anagnos would have thought of what we were doing, but I think– I was working in Lower School, which is what the kindergarten kind of evolved into. So we took it very seriously. And it was a happy time with lots of celebration with the kids, and the staff, and the families. 

Coit: What kinds of things did you guys do to celebrate? 

Cushman: Well, I think probably the details are vague. But there was a lot of food– always, at any celebration. And I think we were used to, every year, have a parade for Founders Day, where we would sing a special song for the founders of Perkins. And the kids would kind of perform a little bit. So when we did have some special songs that we sang as well. 

And we all had special T-shirts, and there was a lot of press coverage. So I think the celebration itself may not have been what stood out. But the fact that there was an observation of what I now see as a pretty monumental establishment– I think that’s really what the part that stood out. 

Coit: So how has your association with Perkins influenced you or affected your life? 

Cushman: Oh, my gosh. Well, as I said, 37 years– it’s kind of woven into every part of my life. But I worked for about 20 years for Perkins international and traveling all around Asia and Africa setting up programs for kids who have multiple disabilities in addition to their visual impairment. And that experience, or those experiences, during that time really made me aware of the global reach of Perkins. And it really made me kind of painfully aware of how much we take for granted in this country and how much the need for even basic education for children in the other parts of the world– how huge that need is and continues to be. 

Coit: As an archivist and a teacher, what event or era in Perkins history do you find particularly interesting? 

Cushman: Well, I mentioned a couple when I was talking about the collections. And I have to say– so the social-reform movement I mentioned of the 19th century, certainly, Laura Bridgman. Really, all of the Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan collections are amazing. And I know those are the most popular collections we have in general, but I really got super interested in the reflections of Anne Sullivan on her work as Helen’s teacher because I think– I think Helen Keller is an amazing figure, and everyone learns about her in third and fourth grade. But for me as a teacher and an archivist, to look at AnneSullivan and how her mind was working to try to figure out something that hadn’t really been figured out before– how to work with a child who’s deafblind– that, I just find fascinating. 

And I guess more recently, I find the era when Perkins started to open the doors to students with multiple disabilities in the late ’70s and ’80s– that, I think, is a really incredibly interesting period in Perkins’ history, not necessarily so much in the archival collections. But from an educational standpoint, no one really knew what to do with these children. And they had always fallen between the cracks because the schools for the blind wouldn’t take any child who had an intellectual disability, and any institution or school for kids with intellectual disabilities wouldn’t take them if they were blind, and certainly not if they were deafblind. 

So we were kind of pioneers just trying to figure out, what are we going to do with these students who are not like Helen Keller and going to Radcliffe, but who have significant learning challenges? So I really loved being part of those early days, and I think that’s a really interesting period of Perkins’ history. 

Coit: So can you tell me just a little bit more about what it was like being part of the early days of that part of Perkins’ programs? 

Cushman: Yeah. We were just doing a lot of experimentation. And some of it’s kind of horrifying when I think about it now. And so for example, we were– but our intentions were good– we were trying to really shift the focus from academic instruction to instruction in more functional activities. I just remember, here’s an example that’s kind of horrifying. 

We had this idea that we should set up a bed in our workshop so that students could come in and practice making the bed in the workshop. And we all kind of patted ourselves on the back for how brilliant we were to be stressing functional skills. Well, the reason why I say it’s horrifying is that it wasn’t for another 10 years– or I don’t know, maybe five years, where we thought, oh, you know what– we could just go make the beds in their bedrooms. We don’t have to have this fake bed in a fake space that the kids are artificially going to in order to make it. We could actually make this a lot more integrated into their regular lives. 

So that’s an example of both our ambition and our vision, as well as the pitfalls. I mean, now it seems obvious. Of course, you would do it in that natural environment. But at the time, kids were sitting at desks. And if you weren’t sitting at the desk and learning braille. And if you weren’t doing that, what were you doing instead? 

So it was a lot of just trying to look at, what are the skills that you need in life that are not academic? So you need to be able to feed yourself, and prepare your food, and communicate, and move around, and all those, again, very basic things. But those hadn’t been part of a curriculum, really, up until that point. 

Coit: Since you’re still so involved in the curriculum aspect of things and activities with Paths to Literacy, how have you have you seen– and if you have, how have you seen the curriculum and approaches evolve over time to what they are today? 

Cushman: Well, that’s a great question. And there are some things that I think are great, and I think there are some things that are not necessarily negative, but more things we have to watch out for. 

So one of the things I think is great is the integration of various skill areas or curriculum domains into a single activity. So for example, I was mentioning about functional activities. If you have a cooking lesson, you can be teaching measurement, and math skills, you could be teaching fine motor and stirring, you can be teaching social skills and you know how to be there with your peers and adults. You can be teaching communication to name the ingredients, you’d be teaching literacy to read the recipe. So again, being able to integrate all of these skills is something that I think we just learn more and more about the ways that makes the skill stick, if you will, and makes it a much, much, much more effective method. It’s harder in many ways because you’re trying to teach a lot of different levels to a lot of different students. That’s a lot of different levels and a lot of different skills. 

One student might be learning to measure to the quarter cup, and even learning about teaspoons and tablespoons. And another student might just be learning to scoop. So you’ve got to be able to do all those things at the same time. 

One of the things I mentioned when I said there are some things to watch out for– I think a plus and a minus is the advent of technology. Well, I shouldn’t say “advent.” I mean, inventing the wheel was technology, but I’m thinking more about electronic technology. 

And I think a lot is fabulous and opens up worlds in whole new ways, but I think there’s also a danger of getting a student– for example, getting a student onto an iPad and learning to use different apps immediately maybe without having a real understanding of objects, and their purpose, and what they’re called, and how to use them. I think we just have to be careful not to be so taken up with the promise of technology. We need to remember that those foundational skills are always important, and most especially if a child is blind or visually impaired with additional disabilities. 

Coit: Right. So what have been some of the most difficult or challenging aspects of your work? 

Cushman: Well, I think– this is true all across my life, in my personal life and my professional life– is I think my goals are always way bigger than my ability to achieve them. So I always have ideas for resources that I want to create, or organize, or new ways to get information out to a broader audience. And now that my work is online, it really never ends because there’s always more coming in. So being able to kind of recognize what my limits are and what I can do I think is always a challenge. 

Coit: So on the flip side of that, what would you say are the most rewarding aspects of your work. 

Cushman: Well, that’s an easy question, really, because, by far, the most rewarding aspect is when I feel that I’m able to make a difference in the life of a child. So whether that be through his or her teacher, or family, or somebody in the community, many people, even now that my work is really entirely online, many people are kind enough to let me know when an activity I’ve shared has made a difference, or a resource that I’ve shared has brought something into their lives. That’s something that I always treasure, and it always helps to think that any effort makes a small difference somewhere. 

Coit: And what about in past positions? What were the biggest challenges and rewards that you found in those positions? 

Cushman: I’d say, oh, it’s probably always the same around resources. So for example, when I was a consultant with Perkins International and New England Center Deafblind Project for many decades, I always had to deal with the fact that the need was bigger than what I could address. So families, and teachers, and everyone really needs regular training and regular support. And the resources just aren’t there to be able to provide that on an individual level. 

So whether I was working in rural Maine, which I did for many years, or in rural India, or rural Africa, I mean, the need was similar. I mean, the gradation is obviously different between rural Maine and rural Africa. But the needs that people have are more than one person can solve as a consultant coming in to say, “hey, let’s try this and that”, and then you leave, that can be frustrating. 

I think as a teacher, the most difficult aspect that I faced at Perkins was the limited prospects for the students when they leave Perkins. And I think this is something that many of us in the fields, both families and teachers, recognize– that there are amazing resources that are available for our school-aged children at Perkins, and in public schools, and all around the country. But for adults, those really kind of dry up. Even though their needs may be the same, the prospects for what’s available for someone who’s blind, particularly with additional disabilities, are really very minimal. 

Coit: And what’s your favorite part of your job? And what have been your favorite part of your jobs? 

Cushman: Well, my gosh, I love being able to combine my experience as a teacher with my interest in sharing information and the organization of resources. So what I’m doing now with Paths to Literacy and some of the other websites I’m working on for Perkins has been– this is a dream job for me– to have the freedom to explore new areas and expand resources. I get new questions and resources change every day, so I never get bored. There’s always some new aspect to explore. So I love that. I love that, and I’m always excited about it. 

Coit: So going back to the development of the archives at Perkins, what were the archives like when you sort of took that project on? What were you faced with? 

Cushman: Well, as I mentioned, people have been collecting things at Perkins throughout history. But there, were– for example, we had the foot locker that belonged to Laura Bridgman And it was full and we had no idea about the provenance of what was in there– in other words, who had put those things there? Had Laura put those there? Had someone put those there after her death? Were they even Laura’s? Were they someone else’s things that they just put in the trunk because there it was and they didn’t know what else to do with it? 

So I think not knowing where things came from or how they came to Perkins– it continues, I’m sure, to be a puzzle. Some of that is fun kind of detective work, and some of it’s very frustrating. You have to make assumptions. When things are housed together, you have to make assumptions that they’ve somehow arrived together as a collection, but that part’s really not clear. And so that, I would say, was a big challenge. 

I think as I mentioned the preservation needs kind of made me cringe. You as somebody who knows about what can happen when things are stored poorly, to be seeing these gems that were kind of disintegrating or being harmed by the way we were storing them– that was a huge challenge. Specifically looking at braille materials or any embossed materials– those are a real conundrum for archivists. 

And Micheal Hudson at the American Printing House for the Blind was extremely helpful in those early days. Of trying to figure out, how can we store these things to protect them? But we also had to work within the budget. You have to pay for every time you have a special box that’s preservation quality. Then it’s going to take up a lot more room on the shelf. 

And so weighing those challenges was huge in those early days. And as I said, just kind of identifying, what’s a collection? You know we had many, for example, posters all through the archives. But we didn’t know if they were a single collection, or if they were just– should they be a collection? So trying to figure those things out. I think are typical of archival work. 

But when you’re really coming in and trying to look at that as one of the first people looking at it, it’s, as I say, it’s kind of a lot of detective work, a little frustration, and certainly, a lot of excitement at the discoveries that we were making. 

Coit: And where was everything being stored? Was it in one room? Or was it’s scattered across campus? 

Cushman: Definitely scattered across campus. And Perkins has kind of the good/bad situation of being an extremely old. Many of the buildings are extremely old. So we’re lucky enough to have some beautiful, climate-controlled shelving, but not all of the collections– first of all, they’ve not been identified. And even if they had been identified, we couldn’t have fit everything there. 

So there was a lot in the tunnels, which are the underground area at Perkins that connect the older buildings. And in the old days, we used to use them for walking from one building the next. But then they became a de facto warehouse, just because there was a lot of space and you can shove things down there. Well those tend to be wet, they’re obviously dusty. 

And so we were running around just trying to find what had been kind of shoved there at some point that needed to be pulled out. And what was worth saving? What wasn’t worth saving? How did we determine what should be saved?

So all those questions were there– then a lot of things that we didn’t even know if they were kind of in our provenance. So what do you do with the statues, for example? Lots of statues around campus. Some of them are standing up as statues, but then there were a lot of busts that were just kind of under a stairwell, or nobody knew what it was or who it belonged to. 

So a lot of that– just trying to figure out what was going to be the scope of the archives? That, I’m sure, continues to be a question. But also, what do we do with all this stuff? And are we responsible? And can we be? And where should we put it? So those questions, I think, continue. 

Looking at instructional materials, I think, is a real question, too, of what should be collected. So with Perkins being the oldest school for the blind in the United States, you know, I think we have some– I would say– obligation. But we certainly have the history of having collected things, many of which were made at Perkins– the first braille writer, for example– and different things that I think have historical significance. 

But then what do you do as you’re moving up to the present? So it’s easy, if something’s from the 1800s, to say, oh, it, this has historical significance. But if it’s from the 1980s, that’s a little too recent to feel that it has historical significance. So do you save every book you got from that era? And what do you do with it? And so I think those decisions, no doubt, continue to be big. But I think in those early days, we were just really trying to figure some of that stuff out. 

Coit: So with Perkins’ history of collecting its own history and the history of other organizations, do you know what the sort of catalyst was to formalize the archives and really put things together and create an archives? 

Cushman: Well, as I say, I think, as long as Perkins has been around or even before, there’s always been some collecting, right? So you think about Samuel Gridley Howe and Michael Anagnos really going through Europe and collecting things to bring back to the United States– to think, you know what are we going to do as we get started here? So they were collecting things from other places. 

But then I think Perkins– some of it was maybe– I think the librarians maybe were saving some of the early documents. So our records from the school– who was enrolled, and what was the tuition, and who were the teachers. Those kind of institutional documents I think we’re kind of naturally saved because the school was recently established. 

But the collections that were a little maybe less directly related to the original mission of the school– that was a lot fussier. So I think, again, the research librarians, over the years, collected those things. But in terms of actually naming the collections, numbering the collections, creating, finding aids– that really started with me in 2011. 

Coit: OK. And so those are all of my questions. But is there anything else that you would like to talk about or a question that I should have asked you that I didn’t? 

Cushman: Well, I think, really, the main thing I wanted to say– that I really feel is so incredibly lucky that Perkins has given me so much flexibility and allowed me to try so many different things. And in addition to the range of positions I’ve mentioned, I’ve been lucky enough to be a co-author and edit a number of publications for Perkins. And I just I’m so deeply grateful to Perkins for the many opportunities that it’s given me, and the many ways that it continues to be part of my life. So thank you so much for asking and for giving me a chance to share some of the story. 

Coit: Can you tell me a little bit about the publications that you’ve co-authored? 

Cushman: Sure. I was one of the authors of the Perkins Activity and Resource Guide. And it makes me laugh because we did this in Lower School when I was a young, idealistic teacher. And we always were getting questions from parents– what can I do with my child over summer vacation, or the holidays? Or what do we do when my child moves to another place, or something like that. 

So we thought, well, let’s– we had an OT, an Occupational Therapist, and a physical therapist, and three teachers. And we thought, well, let’s just make a pamphlet, and jot it down. Well, I think eight years later and 1,000 pages later, we had a two-volume publication. So I’m just laughing because it grew way beyond our vision. 

And then it went into a second edition, which happily, was just one volume. And now much of it’s electronic and available online. So that was the first publication I did. 

I’ve done some editing of various publications for Perkins International, so I worked with a group in India. I’ve worked on two projects in India, actually, on trying to capture a bunch of activities that can be done with students who have multiple disabilities and visual impairment. And what was interesting about that first project is we were designing the book for people who didn’t speak English and who were not literate. So writing a book for people who are not literate and certainly for those who don’t speak English was a really new kind of challenge for me. So I loved that and we published that book with the Blind People’s Association in Ahmedabad, India. 

More recently, I worked on a publication that we did with the American Foundation for the Blind on essential elements of education for children who are blind or visually impaired with additional disabilities. And I wrote the literacy chapter for that, which was a pleasure because that’s the world I live in. And I’ve done some other projects for Perkins International with transition. And we did have a book about transition from school to adulthood for students with multiple disabilities and visual impairment in India. So there are always our new crop projects cropping up, and I always enjoy them. 

Coit: Great. So that’s all I have. I would like to thank you for participating, and I am going to stop the recording. 

Cushman: Thank you.

Tile collage of Dorothy Ingersoll, Rhoda Pill, and Eleanor Thayer

Dorothy Ingersoll, Rhoda Pill, and Eleanor Thayer oral history

Richard Chapman and Claude Ellis running in a race.

Richard Chapman oral history (2023)

Leon Murphy

Leon Murphy oral history