Dave Power once posed a question to fellow board members of the venerable Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Massachusetts: “Does anyone know what happened to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.?” At one time the world’s foremost encyclopedia publisher, the company finally stopped producing its print edition in 2012, after a decade of declining sales. The reason was simple, Power told his colleagues: Wikipedia. “Second place on the Internet is a long, long way behind first place.”
The Perkins board members, Power recounts, were taken aback. The school had been a leader in the education of blind students for 185 years—it had taught Helen Keller—and had created the world’s first brailler, a sort of typewriter for the blind. But its online presence was lagging. At Power’s urging, Perkins began closing that gap with a new online learning site for special-needs teachers around the country. “It was a leap of faith for Perkins—they trusted me that this is what we needed to do,” says Power. Now, with ten courses on offer, Perkins eLearning is the premier online training site for teachers of the blind. It has garnered nationwide recognition for the school.
Last year, Power—who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at Tufts in 1975—was tapped to be Perkins’ president and CEO. Given that he had no experience in nonprofit management, it was in some ways an unusual choice. But during his thirty years as a software executive, Power had been diagnosing and fixing problems to allow businesses to reinvent themselves. Now, he aims to do the same for Perkins, with a push to integrate new technologies into the daily lives of deaf and blind people, both during school and after they graduate. “I don’t pretend to be a special-needs educator—I don’t have to be, because we’ve got that nailed,” says Power. “But if you are not taking advantage of the enabling technology available to the world, then you are going to become irrelevant.”
Power is tall, with gray hair and piercing blue eyes, and on this day is smartly dressed in a gray checked jacket and gray wool slacks. As he sits fidgeting on a green leather chair in the gleaming new Grousbeck Center for Students and Technology on the Perkins campus in Watertown, Massachusetts, he radiates the same restless energy that must have fueled his peripatetic career.
After Tufts, he worked in the clean water and energy fields before earning his M.B.A. from Stanford and settling into the computer industry. Working for the likes of Digital Equipment Corporation and Sun Microsystems, however, he often found that companies built amazing inventions they didn’t know what to do with—what he calls “technology in search of a market.” His specialty became the reverse: researching what customers needed and then figuring out how to build that technology. “Every time I see a business problem, I start out with two questions—who is our customer, and what problem are we solving for them?” he says.
He developed those ideas into a book, The Curve Ahead: Discovering the Path to Unlimited Growth, in which he describes the growth of most companies as an S-curve, in which they start slow, rise quickly, and then level off over time. In order to keep growing, companies must find new S-curves to remain relevant—just as Apple followed its Macintosh with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, each giving a shot in the arm to company sales.
Power comes to Perkins with a built-in advantage in customer research: he is himself a customer. In 1987, Power’s world stopped when he and his wife were at the hospital welcoming their first child and the doctor broke the news that their son was blind. “The immediate impact was just devastating,” says Power. “It took at least two or three days until I made the phone calls around to the relatives.”
Looking through the hospital Yellow Pages, Power came across a listing for Perkins, located just miles from his home in suburban Boston. The person on the line invited him to come to a support group for parents of deaf and blind children. “At least that was a start,” says Power. “You are not the only person in the world who has ever had this experience.” Power’s son, who is also hearing-impaired, entered Perkins in second grade and graduated five years ago, and along the way, Power became more involved in the school as well, joining its board in 2003.
But he would be in for another shock when his son graduated from Perkins and struggled to live independently. His son’s experience is far from unusual; nationwide, only about a quarter of blind adults hold jobs. “As a parent, transition is the second most traumatic experience after finding out your child is disabled. All of a sudden, at twenty-two, it’s a restart—all the money is gone, all the support is gone.” That is a problem Power hopes to address at Perkins. “We want to measure our success by how our students do in getting their first internship, their first job, their first independent living experience,” he says.
Making this transition happen is Perkins’ next S-curve, something Power calls “accessible solutions”—and new technology is the key. “Helen Keller didn’t have a cane. Canes only came about after World War II,” says Power. In more recent years, assistive technology for the blind and deaf has taken off exponentially.
Upstairs, Perkins’ product director, Joe Martini, shows me a roomful of bulky equipment produced over the past few decades: an optical character reader that reads aloud when a book is placed under it, a new “smart brailler” that speaks letters aloud as they’re typed; and a tactile sketchpad with plastic pages that can be indented with geometry homework or the layout of a building.
As impressive as these technologies are, though, they are quickly being supplanted. “What we have seen over the last five years is the acceleration of a lot of these features into mainstream technology,” says Martini. Computers now come with magnification, text-to-speech, GPS, and optical character recognition built-in. Smartphone apps tell blind people the denomination of bills and the color of clothes, tasks that used to require expensive portable scanners. Another app, called Tap Tap See, can even take a picture of an everyday object—from a can of lima beans to the crosstown bus—and, after comparing it to an online database, tell the user what it is.
“Who would have thought that five years ago, somebody blind could buy something off the shelf—an iPhone—and do their emails, surf the Internet, and use all of these applications,” says Martini. One of Perkins’ trainers, Lisa-Ann Chiango, who is deaf and visually impaired, demonstrates a technology called visual relay services, which allows a deaf person to call up a translator at an online call center and receive real-time sign language translations at meetings, complete with facial expressions to convey emotional content.
But all these new technologies succeed only to the extent that people can integrate them into their lives, which is where Perkins comes in. “People think you can just give a person a new technology and they are going to be able to automatically pick it up and use it,” says Chiango. “But it doesn’t work that way.” Half of blind people have another disability, such as deafness or impaired mobility, and each has specific needs at home, work, or school.
That’s why Power is so gung-ho about the next S-curve for Perkins—consulting with individuals, schools, and workplaces to better adapt the technology for deaf-blind people. For Power, it is familiar territory. “It’s the customer experience—it’s the idea that you have to start with the customer,” he says. “And we are uniquely able to do that because we have a professional staff of blind people who can consult on the experience and go into a workplace and advise organizations.”
Already, Perkins’ trainers have worked with a local college that has admitted its first blind student—everything from orienting him to where the bathrooms are to adapting classrooms and online discussion forums so he can fully participate in the work. Power has also brought together a group of twenty-six local businesses—among them Tufts Health Plan and Dunkin Donuts—to figure out how to make workplaces more accessible for deaf-blind people.
Perkins hopes to be at the forefront of larger technological shifts. “One of the biggest barriers to employment is transportation,” says Power, who is hopeful about the advent of driverless cars and other new technologies that may make life easier for blind people. “Blind people could never drive a car, and all of a sudden if we could relax that one constraint, it would be unbelievable.”
Another frontier he points to is facial recognition technology, which has been controversial for its potential infringement on privacy, but could be a godsend for blind people in the workplace. “Now, in meetings, everyone has to identify themselves. Once we turn on facial recognition, you could have an earpiece that tells you who’s in the room.” Microsoft has also been developing a GPS-enabled headset that uses sounds to help blind people navigate.
Besides training people to use these technologies as they emerge, Perkins has also been helping to create them, funding app development and an annual $25,000 prize for startups in assistive technology. Last fall, it awarded the prize to a Mexican company called Ustraap, which produces a wristwatch that emits sonar signals to help blind people navigate—perhaps replacing the cane. “That’s what innovation is, finding new ways of solving familiar problems,” says Power. He’s been learning to do that since his days as an engineering student at Tufts, and now his efforts at Perkins are enabling a whole new generation of deaf and blind people to experience the world in ways they could never have imagined.
MICHAEL BLANDING is a Boston-based freelance writer and the author of several books, most recently The Map Thief.