Perkins, Emerson team up to teach podcasting for the blind

High school students with visual impairment spent a day exploring audio storytelling

Two young men sit around a table and speak into microphones.

In a quiet side room of Emerson's library, Dom and Charlie record their podcast.

December 10, 2019

In a small room just removed from the library at Emerson College, Dom and Charlie are having a conversation about social media and safety. 

Speaking into a microphone, Charlie advises, “When you open Snapchat, check your privacy settings and make sure no one can send you messages unless they’re your friend.” Dom agrees and tinkers with an iPad, recording their conversation to later be edited and turned into a podcast on the subject. 

Despite what it looks like, however, Dom and Charlie aren’t communications majors working on a school project. The two are public high school students with vision impairment taking part in a day-long seminar run by Perkins School for the Blind, in collaboration with Emerson, to learn the fundamentals of podcasting. 

“It’s a unique medium and one very well suited for people with visual impairment,” says Pat Ryan, who oversees the short courses program at Perkins. “We always want to work on new skills, but it’s also important to focus on topics that are relevant to the kids, that they’ll be motivated to participate in.”

In all, 16 students took part in the course, spending the day at Emerson learning about the history of radio and audio storytelling, brainstorming podcast ideas, and ultimately writing and recording an episode. 

They did everything using just microphones and iPads, deliberately keeping it relatively low tech so participants could further their learning at home with lower-cost equipment they might already have. 

Additionally, the medium itself gave students an opportunity to flex their nonvisual senses, as podcasting demands rich storytelling without visual aid. 

And like with all of Perkins’ Short Courses—monthly activities designed to complement students’ academic curriculums—the day was also about sharpening other skills, including career education, social interaction, orientation and mobility, assistive technology and more. 

“Our main goal is to provide a safe space for students to come together and socialize and really challenge themselves in a way they don't have the time or opportunity to do in their regular school settings,” says Ryan. “Most of our participants come from public schools and they might be the only blind or visually impaired student in their school or district. So getting to make connections with peers, and in this case with volunteering Emerson students, too, is a huge part of what we’re doing here and with all our short courses.”

Likewise, Emerson professor Mohamed Khalil, whose son graduated from both Perkins and Emerson, said such courses are good for his students as well. A number of them were on hand to help participants use some of the different equipment involved.

“Disability is something a lot of people don’t think much about in college,” says Khalil, who also supports Emerson’s diversity and inclusion efforts. “We’re working to change that.” 

At the end of the day, though, the course was a chance for kids with visual impairment to explore their interests and create something tangible about them, all while building skills that will help them far away from the microphone.

“It’s not hard to get them to buy in because they’re coming for the podcasting,” adds Ryan. “They might not even realize that while they’re doing that, they’re really working on so many other skills that will help them in other areas of their lives.” 

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