Takeaway: ELP education is only half the story

Teacher and boy sitting on the back of a horse

Educational Leadership Program participant Miguel Olio (left) and Deafblind Program student Antonio on horseback at Renaissance Farm in Milford, N.H.

Antonio took a hesitant step into the soft sand of the paddock. A majestic horse stood a few feet away, tossing its head and daring him to come closer. The class from Perkins Deafblind Program was visiting Renaissance Farm in Milford, N.H., and it was the teen's turn to ride.

But nerves took over. With the horse towering over him, Antonio shook his head at teacher Sharon Stelzer, signing his anxiety. That's when Miguel Olio, a visiting teacher from Brazil who had worked with Antonio for the past nine months, saw the flash of fear on the boy's face. He bent down so the two were at eye level.

"Together!" he exclaimed, gesturing toward the horse. "You want?"

Antonio's face transformed instantly from trepidation to joy. "Yay!" he cried.

Olio helped him straddle the sorrel's wide back, and then swung his own leg over the horse. Wrapping his arms securely around the teen's waist, they were off. He didn't need to see the boy's face to know he had changed his mind about horses.

"Wow!" Antonio cried to his classmates and teachers, who clapped and cheered from the ground below. "Look at me!"

That victorious ride wouldn't have happened without Olio, a participant in the Educational Leadership Program (ELP), which brings educators from around the world to Perkins to learn first-hand about teaching students who are blind and have additional disabilities. To date, 238 international educators have benefited from the expertise, technology and hands-on experiences they glean at Perkins—but that's only half the story. Since the ELP was established in 1989, Perkins educators, staff and students have forged friendships, discovered other cultures and shared a bond that forms only after months of working, living and learning together.

For Olio, an adapted physical education teacher of the deafblind at Ahimsa in São Paulo, Brazil, the farm visit was an idea that sprang from the heart. In addition to his career in special education, Olio has competed in world championships for equestrian vaulting, which is akin to gymnastics upon the back of a horse. The sport requires great physical strength with special focus on the body's core muscles. Coincidentally, exercises that strengthen the core are key for Olio's students at Perkins, all of whom have a complex genetic condition known as CHARGE syndrome that causes deafblindness and other disabilities.

That connection, Olio knew, was an opportunity he could build upon. He introduced his Perkins students to the concept of vaulting during exercises in the program's sensory motor integration room, coaching them on balance and strengthening. The lessons culminated in the visit to the farm—an experience Olio described as unforgettable.

"Nothing can compare with the feeling I had," said Olio, a native Portuguese speaker. "To see these children smiling 100 percent of the time on horse, try really hard to do this difficult exercise…is something I can't explain even in my own language."

But it's not just students who benefit from the passion that ELP participants bring to Perkins. Having an outside observer in the classroom often gives Perkins' experienced educators pause.

"I've had teachers tell me that it really helps them to analyze what they do," said Marianne Riggio, coordinator of the Educational Leadership Program. "It makes them stronger. They're looking at what they do through someone else's eyes."

Many educators from other countries are not accustomed to the hectic pace of everyday life in the U.S., Riggio added. Their calm in classrooms and student residences is not only a breath of fresh air; it can be surprisingly helpful for connecting with kids who have disabilities and may not process things quickly.

"They help us to slow down and be a little more thoughtful with the kids," she said. "They help us to take stock and think a little bit more."

Students and teachers have also found that hosting an ELP participant is an opportunity to touch, taste and experience artifacts from around the globe. From food and textiles to tactile maps and jewelry, participants have literally carried their cultures into the classrooms and cottages. Such was the case with Fahmidah Kahn, who works at the Open Air School in Durban, South Africa, where her daughter is a student. At Perkins to study the education of children with multiple disabilities, Kahn made quite an impression in her Lower School classroom the day she brought in a tribal necklace from home.

"There you go, girlfriend!" Kahn exclaimed, placing an intricate piece of jewelry into a student's hands. Iree's face lit up as she ran her fingers across more than 500 pea-sized white beads strung together into seven overlapping arches. The necklace is traditionally worn by the Zulu people, the largest ethnic group in South Africa, explained Kahn. Crafted by students at the Open Air School, the necklace created an instant symbolic connection between Perkins and her own students in another hemisphere. There is something very special about exploring another culture through touch, Kahn said.

The power of such a connection also inspired ELP participant Sihua Ju, who teaches Chinese braille at Nanjing Technical College and psychology of blindness at Nanjing School for the Blind, both located in China. He taught students to use chopsticks—an entertaining, engaging activity, as well as a great exercise for developing fine motor skills. He also presented them with calligraphy brushes and black paint and gently guided their hands through the strokes to form Mandarin characters.

Lower School student C-Jay worked with Ester Turnip, a special education teacher from Jakarta, Indonesia, on independent living skills. But just as valuable were the smiles, laughs and impromptu vocabulary lessons they shared. Turnip shared her language with those around her, through song and sayings, in exchange for help with English. It was a happy routine that C-Jay has missed since Turnip returned to her students at the Yayasan Pendidkan Dwituna-Rawinala School.

"I don't feel happy about Ester leaving," he said. "I don't feel happy when any of the ELPs leave."