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ECC at Perkins: Building a future starts with confidence

Self-determination is an essential skill that helps students like Brendan set realistic goals and take ownership of their lives.

Brendan, 18, stocks the fridge during his shift at Perk Café. Photo Credit: Anna Miller

Brendan knows what he wants to do with his life and has a plan to make it happen.

During a morning shift at Perk Café, the student-run campus coffee shop, the 18-year-old rings up a customer before restocking the fridge with soda and sparkling water.

“I’m really good at what I do, which is working at the café and serving people,” he says. “It’s something I love and it’s what I want to continue doing.”

For young adults who are blind, developing self-determination is an important step in the transition process. It helps Brendan advocate for himself and push for opportunities in his career and in life, says Denise Fitzgerald, director of transition services.

“It begins with him experiencing something he is successful at and realizing, ‘I can do this,’” she says. “When you’re self-determined you’re taking ownership of your life.”

Self-determination is one of nine blindness-specific Expanded Core Curriculum skills reinforced by Perkins educators. Whether they’re in class or working at a job site, students are encouraged to advocate for themselves by answering questions or sharing their opinions. Doing so helps them develop confidence in their skills, abilities and viewpoints, a pre-requisite for self-determination.

“You have to give kids the opportunity to be self-determined,” says Fitzgerald. “For our kids, if you just hear about it, it’s hypothetical. Having that direct experience is crucial.”

Fitzgerald can clearly remember the turning point in Brendan’s self-determination journey. A previous job making phone calls to donors hadn’t gone well – he was too uncertain when speaking on the phone. His new position as a barista at Perk Café also requires customer service, but now it’s face to face. In his first week, it was clear he’d found his calling.

“It was the new Brendan,” Fitzgerald recalls. “He had the look of ‘I can do this, I have no hesitancy, interacting with the customers is no problem.’ It was just a profound change.”

From that point on, Brendan was able to envision his future and take steps to help him reach his goals. After Perkins, he hopes to operate a vending facility through the Randolph Sheppard Program, which provides jobs for individuals who are blind at kiosks and stores located on federal property. He’s done everything he can to prepare, including enrolling in college courses to improve his vocabulary and reading skills.

“For Brendan, what’s driving him is to be looked at as a manager, to have a positive interaction with customers, to show other people that he’s capable,” says Fitzgerald. “That’s all very empowering for him.”

While self-determination has helped Brendan plan for adulthood, it’s also helped him become a leader on campus. In June, he’s graduating as the president of the senior class.

“It’s boosted my self-esteem,” Brendan says. “I feel like I am a very helpful role model to many of the younger students at Perkins.”

The Expanded Core Curriculum is designed specifically for students with visual impairment. It covers everything from using technology to independent living to socializing with peers – knowledge most sighted children acquire by observing everyday life. The ECC gives students who are blind a toolbox of crucial skills they need to succeed at school, in social situations, at home and on the job.

Tiled portraits of: Sophia Hopkins, circa 1880; Edward E. Allen, circa 1890; Julia Ward Howe, 1902; Dennis Reardon, undated; Joel W. Smith, circa 1895; Anne Sullivan, circa 1887; William Hickling Prescott, undated; and Gazella Bennett, circa 1895.

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