Andrea Richards’ passion for children who are blind came from the most personal place: motherhood. In 2002, she gave birth to twin girls – one visually impaired.
“It starts out with your own child,” she said of her daughter, born with blindness in her left eye and cataracts in both. “Blindness is my baby. That is my field.”
As one of 15 participants in this year’s Educational Leadership Program (ELP), Richards will spend nine months on Perkins School for the Blind’s campus in Watertown, Massachusetts, immersing herself in blindness education, early intervention and transitioning practices.
Richards, a resident of the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, started her teaching career in general education. Then, her daughters were born and her teaching goals changed. Richards now has four children between the ages of 2 and 18.
In 2007, she traveled to Jamaica to complete special education training at Mico University College. After she returned to Antigua, she worked as an itinerant teacher in a unit for students who are blind. She then transferred to the Adele School for Special Children in St. John’s, where she now teaches students with multiple disabilities. Her school of 80 students is growing quickly because it’s the only public school for special needs children in the country, she said.
She teaches about 17 students, between the ages of 10 to 17, with the help of one other teacher and an aide. Her students have a range of disabilities, including visual impairment, Down syndrome and autism. “Some we don’t know (the exact disability), because in Antigua, there is no diagnostic process,” she said.
About two years ago, Richards met Dr. W. Aubrey Webson, former director of Perkins International who is now the United Nations ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda. While participating in a program spearheaded by Webson to improve assessment in Antigua, Webson encouraged Richards to apply to the ELP.
It was difficult to leave her children to study at Perkins, but her country’s educational system needs her, Richards said. “It’s hard to be here, but I have to be here,” she said. “We need more people with this specialized training in Antigua.”
While at Perkins, Richards wants to learn more about transitioning her older students.
“We try to keep them as long as possible,” she said. “We really need a life skills center, because after school, many students need to be able to care for themselves.”
Richards also plans to spend time in Perkins’ preschool and return home with early intervention expertise, because Antigua currently has very limited services for younger children.
“That’s where my heart is,” she said. “I want to offer hope to parents of infant and toddlers, because 14 years ago I had very little support in this area.”