With Genna’s hand resting atop hers, teacher Thanh Trinh Thu guides her student through a bound book made of black felt to a page with a spoon velcroed in its center.
Genna, a 19-year-old with visual impairment and additional disabilities, lifts her hand for the piece of silverware, feeling its shape and form.
“Good job,” her teacher says, signing the words as she speaks. “Let’s go to the next page.”
A lesson in tactile recognition, this type of work happens everyday in the Deafblind Program at Perkins School for the Blind. But this particular lesson has global significance.
From Vietnam, Thanh is a member of the Perkins International Educational Leadership Program, an intensive nine-month professional development course available to special educators from around the world.
While here, she learned how to educate and empower children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities. When she returned home, she was ready to share everything she learned at Perkins with her colleagues and the families of children she serves.
“At Perkins, the belief is all children can learn, no matter their disability,” says Thanh. “In Vietnam, people don’t believe that. More than 90% of children with visual impairment and multiple disabilities aren’t in school. I’m here so I can learn to more effectively help children and change that attitude.”
That sentiment is what brings nearly every program participant to Perkins. They all have their own goals, though, shaped by the needs of their own communities and countries. That much was clear in Thanh’s work with Genna.
In addition to working as a teacher of the visually impaired and as a researcher for Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training, Thanh recently co-founded a tactile and braille book library with another Educational Leadership Program graduate from her country (Nguyen Thi Hang, class of 2018).
Kids in Vietnam sit circled around a tactile book.
By engaging in tactile book lessons with students on campus at Perkins, she learned more about how she can improve library services back home. That was particularly important because she also helps write and create many of the books available there in addition to planning educational programs for students who are blind and visually impaired.
“The children we serve, they’re mostly under 10 years old and they’re already benefiting from the library,” she says. “I want to start a reading group for parents, so they can enjoy reading together as a family.”
Thanh’s plans don’t stop there: She also hopes to use what she learned to establish a model classroom for children with multiple disabilities.
Favored by program graduates all over the world, these model classroom settings are unique: Open to families, peer educators, healthcare professionals and others for observation and training, they empower the adults kids must rely upon.
“These professionals make a huge sacrifice to come to Perkins, leaving their families for nearly a year to learn how they can help the most overlooked children,” says Marianne Riggio, program director. “They do it, though, because they realize the magnitude of the impact they can have. They’re eager to share what they learn here with everyone they can back home.”
That multiplier effect is key.
Today, there are over 6 million children around the world who have multiple disabilities and visual impairment. Most aren’t getting the support they need, a result of many factors, including stigma against disability and a significant lack of qualified special educators.
Started in 1920, the Perkins International Educational Leadership program is the primary way Perkins addresses this challenge. And though the program is designed to effect change around the world, reaching those children starts with bringing those changemakers, like Thanh, to Perkins.
“I'm really learning how to be an educational leader,” she says. “I'm excited to share that with my community and with my country.”