“Trust the railing,” says Kevin Hartigan, director of volunteer services and tours at Perkins.
The newest participants of Perkins International’s Educational Leadership Program (ELP) are blindfolded and lined up single-file, with their left hands resting on the railing of Perkins’ oval-shaped indoor track.
The elevated track, with a specially-designed hand railing, represents one of the many ways Perkins has innovated to make activities, including sports, accessible for students with visual impairments. By resting a hand on the guide rail while running, a child who is blind can safely navigate the circumference of the track without the risk of losing orientation.
The key to staying the course, Hartigan advises the first-time users, is to trust and let the curve of the railing guide you as you move.
“The only thing you can bump into is the person in front of you — I’m not going to let that happen,” says Hartigan.
And then they’re off and running. Or jogging. Or briskly walking. Each has a slightly different style — but they all have excited smiles on their faces and determination in their strides.
It’s the first of many steps of trust, commitment and an openness to learning for the educators of the ELP Class of 2019.
The program participants — known as “ELPs” around campus — have converged at Perkins from across the globe. Their professional backgrounds include nonprofit administration, occupational therapy, higher education and specialized instruction for students with visual impairments and multiple disabilities as well as children who are deafblind.
“There is no other program in the world that provides as comprehensive of services to children as Perkins,” says Marianne Riggio, director of the Educational Leadership Program and International Campus Related Training.
The ELPs — selected not only for their existing skill sets, but also for their potential to make an impact in their home countries — will live and work on campus for six to nine months, learning from Perkins’ world-class teachers, staff and thought-leaders, attending conferences, visiting international agencies and building the leadership skills that will help them affect change in the face of challenges when they return home.
Daniela Gissara, a 2010 graduate of the ELP and now an education specialist for Perkins International, recalls the moment almost ten years ago that her professor in Argentina encouraged her to apply to the ELP:
“I was shaking. You have dreams, you want to learn, you want to help children — you want to get it. And then someone says, ‘Do you want to go to the best place in the world to learn about visual impairments?’”
With millions of children who are visually impaired around the world lacking access to the specialized education they deserve, the need for trained instructors is immense.
The word “million” can feel daunting when the urgency of a child’s quality of life and education is at stake. But Perkins is built on a foundation of persistence, ingenuity and action, no matter the weight of the challenge.
Perkins has the expertise to help these children and those with multiple disabilities, including deafblindness, grow and learn — potentially freeing them from isolation and allowing them to access their full potential. It just needs to reach them.
“That day I was crying with her, [my professor],” says Gissara, “because I didn’t know if I was going to be chosen, but I knew that she thought I was capable — that I at least deserved the chance to apply for something that special — and that it could really then change not only my life, but, through me, the lives of the students I work with, the lives of the families — that I could multiply the impact.”
Gissara has gone on to train more than 500 educators in Latin America and China.
Perkins International understands that the best way to impact these millions of children is to put expert knowledge in the hands of the passionate teachers and educational influencers in their communities.
The ELP program — together with online and on-site coursework for special educators around the world through Perkins International Academy — are moving the dial towards providing access to quality education for all children around the world by 2030, as set forth by the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities identifies inclusive education as a human right and warns that individuals with multiple disabilities and deafblindness are at a high risk of being denied this right.
The need for qualified teachers to deliver this education is urgent.
Every day at Perkins, there is evidence of the power of devoted teachers and specialized instruction to change lives. ELP graduates help extend that power to change out into the world.
What Perkins gives the ELPs is not dissimilar to the skills taught to students at Perkins: confidence in their abilities and the support and tools to achieve things that have felt impossible. “Everything we do is about personal relationships,” says Riggio.
When the ELPs return home after graduating from the program, they carry the knowledge and support of the Perkins community with them. And it changes them.
“It’s that feeling of ‘I can step my foot in the deep end and somebody is going to help me,’” says Riggio.
Perkins is committed to the belief that every child, given the right instruction and support, can learn and grow. For each ELP who graduates from Perkins with newfound confidence and expertise, the reach of Perkins’ mission extends and the global dial on educational access and inclusivity moves.
“You come to Perkins full of dreams of changes you want to make in your country, but you go back home full of more dreams and more expectations because you have seen what is possible,” says Gissara.
For the ELP Class of 2019, possibility began with that first trusting loop around the Perkins track.