Force of (human) nature

Corinne Grousbeck watched her son grow up in a world that struggles to understand people who are blind. Now, as Perkins’ board chair, her mission is to help the world see what she sees

Corinne Grousbeck

Corinne Grousbeck was appointed Chair of the Perkins Board of Trustees in November 2014. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

When it comes to Corinne Grousbeck, the word ambitious might fall a little short.

The new chair of Perkins’ Board of Trustees wants to change the world – a world that, by Grousbeck’s estimation, overlooks an entire population because it happens to be different.

“We need to show society what they’re missing by not accepting people who are blind,” she said. “It’s about getting the message out that says, ‘People who are blind are just like you – they just can’t see.’ It’s up to us to educate society.” When Grousbeck says that, you believe her.

There’s a fierce determination in her voice, tempered with experience. She spent 22 years raising a son who is blind, and more than a decade taking on increasingly high-profile leadership roles at Perkins.

Now she’s stepped into a position that gives her the power to help shape Perkins’ future.

Grousbeck’s fellow Board members unanimously appointed her Chair in November 2014. She was in motion the very next day, working closely with Perkins President and CEO Dave Power to set strategy for Perkins’ programs and services, on its campus, in local communities and around the world.

Grousbeck already has plans to move Perkins forward. But, she said, Perkins will never truly accomplish its mission until society changes how it views people who are blind.

“People don’t understand the contribution that people who are blind can make,” she said. “For me, that’s my bigger goal. And being board chair gives me an incredible platform to be able to do that.”

The feeling of, ‘We’re home’

Grousbeck’s mission to change the world began in California, when she gave birth to a 9-pound, 11-ounce baby boy she named Campbell.

When he was 3 months old, a relative noticed that Campbell had trouble focusing. After a visit to a local pediatrician, the family flew cross-country to meet with the vision experts at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston.

“They did some sophisticated tests and told us that, yes, he was blind,” Grousbeck said. Campbell had a rare condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis, which caused complete blindness.

The family returned to California but soon became dissatisfied with the state’s limited services for children who are blind. One day, while looking at informational brochures about blindness, Grousbeck noticed the logo of a clock tower and the name “Perkins School for the Blind.”

Another cross-country flight was arranged. Walking around Perkins’ campus, surrounded by students using white canes to navigate, the Grousbecks made a life-changing decision.

“It was just established, bucolic, safe,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want their child to come here? It was kind of the feeling, we’re home.”

The Grousbecks moved to Massachusetts in 1995 when Campbell was 2 1/2, and enrolled him in Perkins’ Infant-Toddler Program. For the first time, her son was getting the full range of support he needed, Grousbeck said.

“Not only did he have a preschool teacher, he had a speech therapist, an O&M (orientation and mobility) specialist, an occupational therapist and a music therapist,” she said. “And along with working with him, they were teaching me how to work with him, so his time at home was becoming more valuable.”

However, as Campbell grew, his mother realized that Perkins couldn’t offer everything her son needed to thrive in a sighted world. Inside the safe Perkins “bubble,” Campbell didn’t interact with children who weren’t blind.

So the family sent him to a local integrated school to enhance his social skills. Campbell made friends – but soon fell behind academically and didn’t develop critical life skills.

Campbell returned to Perkins in middle school and remained until he graduated in 2014. But his mother remembered the family’s efforts to balance Perkins’ nurturing environment with Campbell’s need to interact with the wider world. She started keeping a mental list of ways Perkins could improve.

Into the 21st Century

Two events sparked Grousbeck’s evolution from parent to leader at Perkins.

The first was when she bought Campbell a computerized braille notetaker, and realized no other student was using that technology at Perkins. The second was when she attended a Perkins fundraising Gala, and decided the event could be even more inspirational.

“In that moment of time I thought, I can do better,” she said.

Grousbeck already had a track record working with nonprofits, including raising money for Boston Children’s Hospital. She also had professional experience in marketing for Procter and Gamble and other major companies.

In 2006, Grousbeck volunteered to chair the Gala. Her impact was immediate. She encouraged a message of optimism and empowerment. She recruited confident, articulate students to host the event. She brought in well-known performers like Natalie Merchant and put the student chorus on stage to sing with them. View some highlights of these performances from past years:

Most importantly, Grousbeck introduced the Technology Challenge – and attendees responded by contributing more than $200,000 to put new technology into the hands of every Perkins student.

“That night we brought the campus into the 21st century,” she said.

The Gala was just the beginning. Grousbeck pushed for the construction of the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology, funded by a gift from the Grousbeck Family Foundation. It opened in 2011 as the centerpiece of her vision to integrate technology into every aspect of students’ lives.

Grousbeck headed the Trust Board, which raises funds for Perkins. She joined the Board of Trustees. She visited Perkins’ partners in India to learn more about international blindness education.

People noticed her drive and dedication. When Board Chair Frederic M. Clifford decided to step down, Grousbeck was asked to replace him.

Banging down those doors

What is Grousbeck’s goal as board chair? She answers that question like a parent – and an educational advocate.

“We can truly, truly deliver on our mission,” she said. “We can help students bring out their true potential so they can lead productive, meaningful lives.”

Step one to achieving that mission, Grousbeck said, is always striving to improve Perkins.

“I look at our programs and say, what can we do better?” she said. “We have the most incredible staff. There’s such good DNA here at Perkins. We want to maintain that DNA. But we want to make it better.”

Step two is leveraging Perkins as a “learning lab” to help blindness educators everywhere.

“We take our little 200-student campus and create this research facility,” she said. “Testing things, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Everything from our preschool program to creating products that level the playing field for people who are blind. What we do here (at Perkins) really does translate everywhere.”

Step three is preparing students to leave Perkins and succeed in the real world. That means continuing to help students even after they “age out” of the educational system at age 22.

“Like a parent, I don’t think we ever let go of our students,” she said.

The biggest challenge facing students once they graduate, Grousbeck said, is the high unemployment rate for adults with visual impairments.

“It’s obscene that our population has a 75 percent unemployment rate,” she said. “When our students leave here, we can’t open the next door. It’s locked shut. This is why we can’t fulfill our mission.”

That problem needs to be tackled from both sides, said Grousbeck.

Perkins is working harder to ensure students have the real-world skills they need to perform competitive jobs. And it’s working to break down barriers to employment. Initiatives like the Perkins Business Partnership are reaching out to local companies and asking about hiring practices, jobs that can be adapted for people who are blind and more.

“Instead of just saying, ‘Someday society is going to open those doors,’ we’re banging down those doors with a battering ram,” Grousbeck said. “There’s a gulf that still exists, but we’re closing it. That gulf is smaller than it was even last year.”

Perkins does have one powerful tool to help improve the lives of students, both before and after they graduate: technology. Innovative hardware and software are empowering people who are blind in ways no one could have predicted in the pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days when Campbell was born, Grousbeck said.

“If you told me 20 years ago that engineers were developing software that was going to help people who are blind, I would have laughed in your face,” she said. “But there are hundreds of apps now that people who are blind can use. The key to living your best life is having independence. And you can do that with technology.”

Marching orders

Grousbeck is excited about her new role as board chair. But she feels pressure to deliver results – because she believes she answers to a higher power.

“The universe gave me this mission,” she said. “It knocked on the door: Here’s your 9-pound, 11-ounce baby. He’s blind. Go to it!”

Grousbeck knows the clock is ticking. Changing the world is a big job.

“I have a huge sense of urgency,” she acknowledged. “I think the biggest piece I have left to do is demystifying blindness and creating a world that is open and accepting of people who are blind. That really will remove that final obstacle for all people who are blind – but also for Campbell.”