All about the tech

On and off campus, Perkins School for the Blind is harnessing new tools to address today’s challenges

A young girl touches a large, interactive screen.

A young girl in the Deafblind Program works on an interactive screen.

March 26, 2019

This story appears in the Spring 2019 issue of In Focus.

Perkins School for the Blind has long embraced contemporary technology. The Howe Printing Press brought accessible literature to the blind community in the 1880s. The 1950s saw the arrival of the Perkins Brailler, which is still the world’s most popular braille typewriter. In 1983, the school acquired an early Apple computer.

Technology today is more central than ever to Perkins’ mission, both on and off campus. And the reason is simple: used creatively, it holds great potential to tear away at long-standing accessibility barriers everywhere they exist.

“Technology can provide access to leisure and recreation, to communication and education, to navigation. It’s everything,” says Wendy Buckley, a teacher in the Deafblind Program and an assistive technology specialist. “It empowers users and gives them control over things they may not typically have control over.”

Across campus every day, students employ screen readers and text magnification software to use computers, braille printers to emboss raised dots on paper and electronic video magnifiers to enlarge items beneath a camera. The assistive benefits of technology, however, can get much more intricate and individualized.

Students like Noa, 13, with limited communication skills, may utilize refreshable braille displays. Noa writes and connects the device via Bluetooth to an iPad to use its built-in voiceover software and read the writing aloud. Using the brailler, Noa could even command an iPad to ask something of a nearby virtual assistant like Amazon’s Alexa.

Then there are the downright futuristic technologies—like Eyegaze, which enable students with some vision but limited mobility to maneuver the web using just their eyes. Teachers, too, are able to employ Eyegaze to track students’ eye movements and cull valuable data that help them better understand their students and create stronger lesson plans.

“We have people here who are really leaders in the field,” adds Jean Petrone, a Perkins computer teacher and technology specialist. “We work with students and can carefully choose the best type or types of technology for them, based on their needs.”

These technological endeavors on campus are mirrored in Perkins’ many off-campus initiatives as well, perhaps most notably in the Perkins Library. The library has long disseminated talking books to people who need them, reaching more than 25,000 adults and children every year. But it’s also been expanding its offerings in recent years to embrace new and emerging literary tools.

In partnership with the Library of Congress, the Perkins Library launched the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) a few years ago. An app for smartphones or tablets, BARD enables users to download accessible books from the comfort of their own homes.

More recently, the Perkins Library conducted a yearlong pilot through which it lent nearly 100 Orbit Readers. These refreshable braille devices akin to Kindle or other reading tablets can, when used with a memory card, hold hundreds of books. As part of the pilot, the library also had borrowers answer questions about the Orbit Readers’ usability in hopes of establishing a permanent national lending program.

“It’s so important to stay abreast of and pay attention to emerging technologies,” says Kim Charlson, executive director of the Perkins Library. “We’re always looking at new ways to increase access.”

If there’s one thing these initiatives have in common, it’s that they’ve been made possible through generous support of friends of Perkins: the 2018 Possibilities Gala alone raised more than $1 million, including $131,000 earmarked specifically for assistive technology. And staff are excited for the future because of the opportunities this support provides.

“We’re not intimidated by technology,” adds Petrone. “We’re all in.”