In living color

Role models fuel real-life inspiration

Smiling student in race car. Bill Henderson standing nearby.

The race car sat sleek and silent by the curb, emblazoned in swaths of orange and blue. Students from Perkins School for the Blind thronged around the vehicle, pounding their palms on thick rubber tires and stroking the smooth exterior.

But the novelty of having a piece of auto racing history on campus only began with the car. The man who guided the students through their tactile exploration was Harry “Jay” Blake, the car’s chief mechanic and owner and president of Follow A Dream, a drag racing team and organization dedicated to sharing the power of positive thinking and self-determination.

Blake also happens to be completely blind.

“You can do so many things without sight,” said Blake, who lost his sense of sight, taste and smell in an industrial accident in 1997. His recovery and realization that he still possessed a love for race cars led him to found Follow A Dream. “Once I learned that,” he added, “I was able to follow my dream.”

Blake is one of several role models who addressed Perkins Outreach Summer Employment Program, A Sampling of the World of Work. The five-week program, which pairs public school students with jobs at local businesses, also focuses on resume writing, budgeting and independent living skills. It balances these experiences with real-life insight on what it means to succeed in the world as a person who is blind or visually impaired – in the form of role models who know first-hand what it takes.

“These kids are quite possibly the only students with a visual impairment in their school,” said Marcela Valderrama, a teacher of the visually impaired for the Outreach Program. “More than likely, they are the only person with a visual impairment in their family. And though there are teachers of the visually impaired, and programs where these kids can get together to network and socialize, it’s still not the same as having a role model. They need to know what it’s really like.” For young people preparing to face the world, opportunities to interact with someone who is blind can be just as critical as resume writing classes or learning the responsibility of holding a job, she added. That kind of interaction can be what gives them the self-confidence necessary to face new challenges.

Exploring the race car was a rare inside look at what it’s like to be a mechanic who is blind – and, Blake hoped, for the teens to appreciate that anything is possible. Blake and his crew slowly lifted the exterior to expose its engine to the students’ eager hands.

“This is where we hold the fuel and the oil,” announced Blake above the din of excited students, reaching his hands deep into the engine. “Go ahead – you can touch anything and everything. This is the steering wheel. This lever right here, this is the brake.” He paused, letting the crowd absorb his words and continue its tactile exploration, before releasing the show-stopper. “Now, this car goes from a standing stop to 260 miles per hour in five and a half seconds.”

Collective gasps and whistles of amazement filled the air. “Whoa!” several teens exclaimed. “No way!”

Days earlier, the students had a very similar reaction to another guest speaker, who wowed the crowd upon revealing that she is only 23. Despite her youth, Haben Girma, who is deafblind and a student at Harvard Law, has lived and traveled independently, interned for the federal government and is working toward a career in civil rights. Her insight and advice about facing the adult world as a person with a disability hit home with her young listeners, who found it inspiring to hear from a peer who shared their hopes and fears. Jade, a 19-year-old student from Chelsea, Mass., wanted to know whether Girma had ever struggled socially.

“Did you enjoy your high school experience?” the teen asked.

Girma’s interpreter repeated the question into a headset microphone, which delivered the message at high volume to Girma’s earbuds. The law student smiled with understanding.

“In high school, I felt very awkward. People want to be cool, and consequently they can be mean and not as nice,” she said, as the teens nodded appreciatively. “But in college people are more mature and know how to be themselves. Law school is my absolute favorite. I have more friends and go to more social events, and I feel more like part of a community.”

Being accepted by peers who are sighted and competing academically and in the workplace is not easy, the group agreed.

“Sometimes I feel the pressure becomes worse for us, because it’s almost like we need to do even better to gain the respect of sighted people,” said Jade, who hopes to study civil rights at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. “You can have all the preparing in the world and still have that uncertainty and fear of what lies ahead.”

“It is true that you have to work harder as a blind person to gain the respect of sighted people,” Girma said. “But at the same time, you also have to be yourself. I haven’t really stopped feeling nervous and uncertain about the future. My last year of law school is coming up and I have no idea what I’m doing after that. I don’t know if I’ll find work, but I’m trying. Part of me has learned to adapt to that uncertainty. It all really comes down to attitude.”

Having the right attitude is what drove Bill Henderson to a successful career in education. The retired elementary school principal told his story to the Outreach students, recounting how he lost his sight to a degenerative eye disease as an adult. But he refused to let his vision loss stop him. He joined a self-help group of adults who were losing their sight, he told the teens, which led him to an important revelation.

“Nobody can do everything. Some people say, ‘I’m totally independent.’ And I say, ‘Oh. Did you grow your own food? Did you make the chair you’re sitting in? (If you did,) then you’re totally independent. (Otherwise) that’s a myth.”

Henderson went on to serve as principal of the O’Hearn Elementary School in Dorchester, Mass., during which he found himself asking the students to help him with many things.

“As you go through life, it’s important for you to ask for help sometimes. I was just traveling in the airport, and the bathrooms can be like mazes. I’ll say, ‘Hey, which way is the sink?’ Or, ‘Where is the soap?’ There’s no way of knowing when you go into a place for the first time. I’m not embarrassed. It’s okay to ask for help, but then you also have to be prepared to give help.”

After 20 years he retired in 2009, and the school was renamed the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School in his honor. He also wrote a book about his experiences, published in 2011, called “The Blind Advantage: How Going Blind Made Me a Stronger Principal and How Including Children With Disabilities Made Our School Better for Everyone.”

“At some point in life you have a choice about being blind,” he told the teens. “You can either stay at home and hibernate, or you get out there. And when you get out there, whether you’re blind or not, some things are going to go well and some things aren’t going to go so well. You gotta go on.”

Listening to the words of others who have faced similar challenges was uplifting for Sudeep, 17, of Harrison, Maine.

“It’s cool to hear from other people who have made their way in the world,” he said. “It shows me I can accomplish the same things. It’s really inspiring.”