Dorinda Rife has big plans to improve blindness education

Dorinda Rife, superintendent of education programs at Perkins.

Dorinda Rife defines her career as “a calling.”

Dorinda Rife began her teaching career in 1984. In 30 years, she’s worked with thousands of students with blindness, low vision and deafblindness at more than 100 schools in three states. Maybe that’s why the phone call she received last Mother’s Day really stands out in her mind. It came from Sue Collins, whose son Brian was Rife’s first student.

“She called to tell me that Brian graduated and received his bachelor’s degree,” says Rife, a smile spreading across her face, the corners of her eyes crinkling behind her rectangular frames. “Think about that. That’s incredible. She called me on my cellphone, on Mother’s Day, to let me know what he had accomplished.”

It’s a moment when you feel close to Rife, even though you’ve only been sitting with her for 20 minutes. She has an openness – a natural ease of being with people – that’s perfect for sharing a special moment. And she has had many special moments in her career as an educator, a mom, a daughter and a wife.

A self-proclaimed Air Force brat, Rife was born in California. The family moved often, and as a child she lived at Hanscom Air Force Base, 12 miles from Perkins’ campus in Watertown, Mass. Rife was shy – “painfully shy,” she says – but always got picked to be the leader of whatever she and her friends were doing, “even if I didn’t want to.”

Her mom taught kids who were deaf and, from an early age, Rife remembers a fascination with eyes. She had intentions early on to study optometry, but wound up following in her mother’s footsteps. To hear Rife describe it, it’s almost as if she had no choice in the matter.

“It’s a calling; this is where I’m supposed to be.”

In her mother’s eyes, Rife had always been a teacher. “She said to me, ‘Well, you know, you’ve always liked teaching and you’ve always liked eyes. Why don’t you teach people who are blind?’” The memory brings a chuckle. At that point, Rife had never yet encountered a person who was blind.

She followed the calling and has built a fulfilling career, seeing the world through the eyes of people with limited vision.

Teachable moments

“They see the world differently than other people do,” she says as she describes the interview setting. “They’re not getting all the cues about where we are in space, and that I have a tape recorder in front of me, and that you’re sitting across from me.” Seeing the world from the perspective of a person with little or no eyesight is crucial to teaching people who are blind, she says.

Rife likes to tell stories, and in three decades of working in education she has collected many of them. Some stories are connected to students whose pictures she has in her office. Brian Collins is one of those students. Blind at birth, Brian had natural intelligence, though Rife says he was challenged in travel. “He would joke that he’d get lost in his own bedroom. He didn’t know where his body was in space.” Rife was Brian’s teacher for six years.

One summer, she and Brian spent every day walking around the two-block area where Brian went to school so he could learn about residential settings.

“So we’d be walking around, and, you know, it was spring, and the bulbs were coming up, and so we’d look at the bulbs. That’s a concept that a person who is blind wouldn’t get normally,” she says. Therefore, “You teach it.”

One neighbor was growing rhubarb.

“He gave us all these cuttings from his rhubarb plants. And we then took them to a kitchen and cut them up, and made them into a compote and ate it over ice cream. So here was a concept and we took it all the way. It grows; somebody is the gardener. You can harvest it. You can cut it up. You can cook it this way. You can eat it in this fashion.”

After transitioning from high school, Brian hit a bump. He lost his motivation and dropped out of school. He didn’t go back for several years, which is why the phone call Rife received last Mother’s Day meant so much. Brian’s mom wanted his former teacher to know “their work had paid off.”

The stars aligned

In the summer of 2009, Rife’s husband Chris turned 50 and wanted to mark the occasion by participating in at least 50 miles of racing. A seasoned marathoner, he decided to run the Cape Cod Marathon.

Husband and wife journeyed east and decided to do some sightseeing while in Massachusetts. Tops on the list of places to visit: Perkins. Rife knew a lot about the first school for the blind in the U.S., but had never been on campus, despite the fact her daughter attended Boston College (just five miles away). Like so many things in Rife’s life, it seemed the decision was fated.

“I felt this incredibly magnetic pull that I needed to be here. It was – it was the strongest hunch I think I’ve ever had in my life.”

She took the position of superintendent for Perkins School for the Blind. From the beginning Rife had a vision of how Perkins could provide better life skills training for students and expand the school’s national outreach.

“To her, it’s about empowering each of our students to live a full life with purpose and meaning: a dignity that should not be taken away simply because of a disability,” says Corinne Grousbeck, Perkins’ Trustee Chair-Elect.

But fate hadn’t yet revealed all its cards. When President Steven Rothstein announced his impending retirement last summer, the Board of Trustees transferred some of the responsibilities of his position to Rife – charging her with charting an ambitious course for Perkins School for the Blind, and trusting her vision and leadership to share the school’s expertise and proven strategies on a national level.

Today, Rife serves as superintendent and executive director of national education programs, an opportunity that she says will help her implement new school programs and support across the country. Perkins continues to increase the number of states its itinerant teachers serve, and its reach will continue to grow with the introduction of remote and virtual services, with the goal of improving educational opportunities for students all over the U.S. It’s the chance of a lifetime, she says, to move Perkins further forward as a leader in blind education.

“The stars aligned,” says Rife.

That ominous statistic

Developing confidence and independence is the foundation to Rife’s philosophy of teaching people with limited vision.

“We have this ominous statistic of how many people who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed or underemployed. It’s 75 percent. And when I started in 1984, the statistic was the same. We have not changed that at all.”

Because students who are blind can’t process the visual cues sighted students take for granted, it’s up to their teachers to explain what’s appropriate in the workplace or a social setting. While this kind of learning may come naturally to sighted people, students who are blind have to be taught how to act appropriately in a given situation. Rife calls this “concept development.”

Without it, it’s extremely difficult for students to amass the kind of work experience as teenagers that lead to careers as adults.

“A couple of years ago, we had a student in a five-week program working at a non-profit. She was placed in a row of cubes and would stand up and shout across the room to someone in another cube because she didn’t know that’s not what you’re supposed to do,” Rife says.

That’s why transition programming is a critical focal point of her agenda. Its importance cannot be understated, agrees Grousbeck, who adds that improving employment opportunities for people who are blind rests on two important factors.

“First is to ensure people who are blind have access to an education that will help them develop marketable skills that are meaningful to them,” she says. “Second, society needs to accept these individuals into the mainstream and provide opportunities for employment.”

“We want to show these kids the opportunities that are out there, and give them the skills and support to be successful working adults,” Rife says.

An even stronger organization

Successful leaders often define themselves by their impact on the people around them. With a new focus and unending enthusiasm for her work, Rife believes Perkins will be “an even stronger organization” educating toddlers, children and teenagers – and giving them the tools and confidence to lead productive and independent lives. She says she’s spent her life preparing for this challenge. “I learned by watching kids and figuring out what they didn’t know, and what they needed to know more about,” she says.

Now she is sharing that knowledge with this dynamic community of educators, parents and students – and creating new, special moments along the way.

Read more about: Perkins Leadership