Roth started as a volunteer in the Perkins metal machine shop. He would go on to teach Orientation and Mobility starting in 1976. He left Perkins to work as a technical writer for software books and then taught Orientation and Mobility at The Carroll Center before returning to Perkins. Roth continued teaching Orientation and Mobility until his retirement in 2021. In 2002 Roth wrote the article, “Is my cane long enough?” which was published in the journal RE:view. Photographed on the top floor of the Perkins Museum, Roth, a white man with short white hair is grinning. He wears glasses and is dressed in a black pullover.
This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on June 22, 2021, by Jen Hale.
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 The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind.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].
Roth, Chip. “Chip Roth oral history interview conducted by Jen Hale,” 2021-06-22, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG176-2021-02, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Jennifer Hale: Today is June 22, 2021. This is Jen Hale. I’m here with Chip Roth, an Orientation and Mobility Specialist. We are conducting this interview virtually on Zoom because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Chip, are you OK with me recording this conversation?
Chip Roth: Yes.
Hale: Great. So you’re about to retire. What year did you start working at Perkins? And what was your role then?
Roth: For the most part, I taught Orientation and Mobility, which means– well, the short answer is I teach blind people how to get around with a white cane, distinguish left from right, get to their classes, ride buses, cross streets, those kinds of things. That’s what I’ve been doing for a while.
Hale: Can you tell me a little bit about your typical day in this role?
Roth: Oh, a typical day- well, so there are seven classes scheduled. So some students– and those classes are 15 minutes.
So some students, I see for half periods. Some I see for two periods. The students come in a variety of abilities. So we put work in say, learning left and right. We might work on that for three 25-minute periods a week.
To ride the bus, it might take two hours. So the day varies that way. They always throw in meeting. So that’s how it goes.
Hale: What brought you to Perkins?
Roth: Pardon me?
Hale: What brought you to Perkins?
Roth: Oh. I started as a volunteer actually in the metal machine shop. My father had a metal working shop. And I knew how to get around a lathe. So that’s how it started.
It was fun. I asked somebody, how do you do this professionally? They say, well, you go to B.C. I went to B.C. for an informational interview.
And I interviewed the person who ran the Deaf and Blind Program. And I decided that wasn’t for me.
But as I stepped out of the office, there was a sign across the hall. It says, there’s a career for you in orientation and mobility. And it was a picture of Uncle Sam, one of those draft posters.
I couldn’t turn it down. I said, I always wanted to know how people did that. It looked eminently practical to me. So there we have it. So that’s how I got here.
Hale: Has the job changed much since you’ve started?
Roth: The job has not changed much. The school has changed a lot. The student population has changed a lot.
The job has not changed a lot. It’s still the same. Instructing students on using long cane, getting to classes, that’s still teaching and learning about space, how the world is organized, things like that. That’s always been the case.
Hale: What have been the most difficult or challenging aspects of your work?
Roth: Let’s see, well, excluding COVID, excluding COVID, I would say the hardest parts are the not being able to engage the student for whatever reason. The student’s not interested. I’m going at it all wrong.
That tends to be the biggest frustration is simply knocking your brains out and not getting anywhere. So that can be pretty trying at times.
Hale: What is it like teaching during COVID?
Roth: Pardon me?
Hale: What has it been like teaching during COVID?
Roth: Oh, teaching during COVID was awful. Let’s see, first of all, there was the stretch when we were not allowed on campus. And we had to teach remotely over video conferencing and that kind of stuff.
And orientation and mobility is rather hands on event. So we can’t be teaching cane skills if the student is sitting in a chair looking at a video monitor. It was really awful.
When we got back to campus, there were lots of COVID restrictions about where you could go and things like that. So it was better, it still was tough. And we all had to wear masks. That was just no fun.
We have had it for a year and a half, and I still haven’t figured out how to not fog my glasses. So COVID was no fun.
Hale: What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of the job?
Roth: The relationship of my colleagues and students- I was saying there were– I was working with a pair of students. And they were both right at say 16, 17.
And they were both only kids. So they would get in fights about who had the front seat. And I thought this was great. Because they never had a chance to do that.
So I just let them sort it out. It was a great. And they became friends. So great, it was really wonderful. Those are the things that I remember.
Hale: Can you tell me about any other positions you’ve held at Perkins? Have you done anything else besides orientation and mobility?
Roth: Well, yes. I left Perkins after a while to go work in the wonderful world of computers as a technical writer. So I was the guy that wrote the book on how you’re supposed to use your software program.
So if you are making mistakes on your software program, blame me, because I told you what to do. And I hated it. Because you were stuck inside for 6 hours, typing away on your word processor on your computer, talking to no one.
It was not for me. I mean, I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I worked in places that tried to make a profit. But it was not for me.
I also worked at Carroll Center for a while, which is an adult rehab agency. And that was fun too. That was fun too.
Hale: What was your role there?
Roth: Pardon me?
Hale: What was your role at–
Roth: Orientation and mobility.
Hale: Perkins has gone through a lot of changes since 1976. Can you tell me about some of the changes?
Roth: Well, I’m telling people that in my tenure it feels like Perkins has gone from the 19th century to the 21st. So when I was going to mobility school, I was also in the cottage, living in the cottage. And I was trading coverage for room and board.
And my position was described as Assistant House Master. And I was to report to the Dean of Men. And at the time, it was still largely separated by sex. So we talked about girls’ side and boys’ side. There were no such things as co-ed cottages, those kinds of things.
Now, in addition, the culture has changed. So I was around when mainstreaming became the thing to do where we took visually impaired kids and put them in public schools, because they thought, why segregate? OK.
That became law with Chapter 766, federal law, the idea– the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act. So I guess, in the time I’ve been here, blindness and other handicapping conditions is, shall we say, more mainstream? More accepted into the community?
Yeah, I guess.
Hale: What do you think have been the most important changes at Perkins in this time that you’ve been here? Do you think– I mean, it could be a philosophy. It could be programs. Is there anything that sticks out?
Roth: Could you repeat the question, please?
Hale: Sure. I was wondering what do you feel have been the most important changes at Perkins in the time you’ve been here?
Roth: The most– I think the most important change has been the inclusiveness of the student population. Again, in 1976, we were talking about students who would go on to college. But you don’t find too many of those graduates these days.
So the students now are multi-impaired. Yeah, they’re multi-impaired. And they’re welcome.
But I think that that’s a big change. There are some teachers who sort of resented having multi-impaired students in their classroom. Now, they’re welcome. So that’s great.
Hale: What’s the most memorable event or experience from your early years at Perkins? Is there an event or an experience that is the most memorable for you?
Roth: There are some of us who– one of the school psychologist which was involved with one of these outdoor adventure things on the weekend. So I joined one of those.
And we went whitewater rafting. We went rock climbing. We went caving.
Caving is a dirty business. So the instructions were to bring an extra set of clothes and trash bags. And you were supposed to put these on.
Well, one of the students showed up wearing the trash bags. But you said– you don’t need it right now. But you said– that was pretty funny.
Hale: What do you know about Perkins that would be surprising to people, do you think?
Roth: Well, I think that– I think people think that Perkins is just kids who are blind, period. So if you try to explain, no, they are blind. That’s true. They don’t see very well, thank you very much.
But in addition, they may be autistic. They may have cerebral palsy. They may have seizures. They may have other medical conditions. They may be in a wheelchair.
Yeah, I think that that’s– the perception again is that the students are just blind.
Hale: Do you teach more– do you teach orientation and mobility to students in wheelchairs?
Roth: Say that again.
Hale: Do you teach students in wheelchairs orientation and mobility?
Roth: Yeah. Yeah. There are some students who– I mean, their vision is good enough that they can drive themselves around in their own chairs or push themselves around.
I think you can also work on having students in wheelchairs direct their program aids. Oh, yeah, I need to go to math class. I think you go to English, turn right, third door on your left. Those kinds of things we can use for orientation and mobility.
Hale: How has your association with Perkins influenced you or affected your life?
Roth: Oh, geez, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been here forever. I met my wife here.
Yeah, that’s hard to say. At some level, I feel like I’ve grown up here. So one of them, I don’t know.
But yeah, I feel like I’ve grown up here, matured here, learned all kinds of stuff, and had a good time.
Hale: Who have been some of the most memorable staff members at Perkins? And why are they memorable?
Roth: Oh, that’s– I’m not sure I want to go there. I might get catty.
Hale: Did you– well, it sounds like you met your wife here. I’m wondering, do you have other close relationships here at Perkins with other staff members? Other staff members, are you close with that maybe came at the same time?
Roth: Yeah, well, most of my buddies retired. I’m not in touch with too many alums, to tell you the truth. You retire, and everybody goes their own way for kids and so on. So no, I haven’t been in touch with them.
Hale: What are you most proud of in your work at Perkins?
Roth: Well, I think I am most proud of coming to work. It’s a very hard job. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a very hard job. Because it takes a lot of patience. And you don’t see a lot of progress.
And so coming– just coming to work is a challenge. And so I think that’s the first part of it. 90% of life is showing up. So I did that.
But I really think I had some good relations with some students. And I think that that carries forward.
But not all adults are meanies. Not all teachers are meanies. You can learn something and have a good time. So I think that’s another valuable contribution of Perkins.
Hale: Do you take students off campus when you do training with them?
Roth: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I mean, the point of orientation and mobility is to get places on your own and take care of yourself. So sure.
Back in the days, when the Beacon Luncheonette was around– that was a diner across the street. We’d clear students to go there. They would go over, have a cup of coffee on their own steam.
This last year, I was working with a student. He could independently travel from Perkins to a guitar store in Davis Square, Somerville. So he liked to go there. The guy let him play guitars. Great, great. Sure, we go off campus all the time.
Hale: I guess, is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
Roth: No, not at the moment. Thanks. I appreciate all the hard work of my colleagues.
I mean, one of the things that makes the job hard is you sort of can’t take any credit. The student learns to count to three. Well, I’ve been working on getting to the third door on the right. And the math teacher has been working on counting.
The student learns to count to three or five. I mean, who did that? Well, the student did that. But I can’t take any credit for it.
And some days, that’s a little tough. But that’s teaching too, I suppose.