While fellow college students used laptops to take notes in class, Jeremias Feliz depended on a telescope. It was the only way he could see the board and read his professor’s scrawl.
“I tried board magnifiers, but they weren’t efficient. They weren’t portable,” said Feliz, who has low vision. “In a college environment, you don’t want to be hauling things around.”
And then, while researching his thesis on assistive technology for individuals with disabilities, he stumbled across the solution to his struggle: a brand-new take on a board magnifier, created by MIT doctoral student David Hayden who had designed the tool to address his own low-vision needs. Feliz tested the magnifier in his statistics class, found it an unparalleled solution, and kept the tool in mind when Perkins Products hired him five months later. He introduced Hayden to the company’s team at a January meeting, where the demo immediately caught the attention of Joe Martini, director of assistive technology for Perkins Products.
“In the first three minutes, I said to myself, ‘Wow,’” recalled Martini. “I’d never seen anything like this.”
One year later, Perkins Products has unveiled the ZoomCapture, Hayden’s brainchild, to consumers across the nation. Weighing less than a can of soda, the camera live-streams images to a laptop, which can be magnified while the user types notes on a split screen. It’s the latest addition to the exclusive Perkins Products line of assistive technology solutions – and a prime illustration of the bold new direction in which the once-tiny Brailler company is blazing an ambitious trail.
“The ZoomCapture is different and innovative, and that’s what I was looking for,” said Feliz, an assistive technology trainer at Perkins Products. “And that’s part of my job here: I find innovative solutions to problems.”
Perkins Products’ history and success is tied to the very earliest days of its parent organization. Samuel Gridley Howe, the school’s first director, established a printing department to produce embossed books for his students’ use. Eventually named Howe Press, the department designed and manufactured several models of braillewriters in the first decades of the 20th century. But it wasn’t until 1941 that the prototype for the classic Perkins Brailler®– a model still in use today and renowned for its quality around the world – was designed, and that Perkins’ reputation as its creator took root.
It was that very same reputation, more than 60 years later, that gave David Morgan pause. A former president of a semi-conductor company who had returned to graduate school for a doctorate program, he answered an unexpected phone call from a recruiter who had seen his resume online. Perkins was looking for a leader with business expertise to turn the small Howe Press operation into a forward-thinking company.
“There seemed to be the essence of something great here,” Morgan recalled. “You had this great core product in the Perkins Brailler, and this great brand called Perkins School for the Blind; but no marketing, no distribution, and no engineering or product development. Literally none of the building blocks.”
But change was on its way. Perkins President Steven Rothstein understood well the transformative impact the school’s Braillers were already making. He wanted to push that impact to the next level, and buttress Perkins’ efforts to spread literacy through braille around the world – a move that supports higher employment rates, better engagement in the community and overall improved quality of life for people who are blind around the globe.
“Perkins was already known as the maker of the most popular, durable and useful Brailler around the world,” Rothstein said. “But we could do more. We could put more Braillers into the hands of more individuals, and we could give more people the opportunity to become engaged, contributing members of society.”
Intrigued, Morgan accepted the challenge. Under his direction, the newly-named Perkins Products went from waiting for Brailler orders to roll in, to actively pursuing sales with a new team. Always cognizant of its tie to the parent organization and overarching mission to improve people’s lives around the globe, it partnered with Kilimanjaro Blind Trust to establish spare parts depots in Africa where people could fix their Braillers locally and for less cost. It joined forces with Worth Trust Co., a company in India that employs individuals with disabilities, and shipped Brailler parts manufactured at Perkins’ Watertown, Mass., campus for assembly overseas where locals could purchase it at an affordable price.
But as sales and success grew, Morgan had more ideas about what the future should look like. Conceiving of Perkins Products as a “new product engine,” Morgan’s team approached American Printing House with its idea for a lighter, updated brailler. Out of that partnership came the Next Generation Brailler, which was well received around the country. More importantly, it became the platform for Perkins Products’ latest and most revolutionary solution for people who want to learn braille: the SMART Brailler®. Launched in 2012, the SMART Brailler features a digital screen and real-time audio feedback – two additions that users of all ages have praised as the most intuitive way yet to learn braille.
“It really seems to resonate for parents, teachers and kids like no other product,” said Morgan. “I think in three or four years, we’ll discover in hindsight that it’s the greatest development for literacy through braille in the last 50 years.”
In the last six years, Brailler sales around the world have surged by more than 60 percent, with products being distributed in more than 170 countries. And in 2013, Perkins Products’ efforts were acknowledged by the federal government, when the U.S. Department of Commerce presented Morgan’s team with the President’s “E” Award—the highest recognition any U.S. entity may receive for contributing to the increase of American exports.
But just as the population served by Perkins School for the Blind has transformed over the decades from students living with blindness to individuals with deafblindness, vision impairment and multiple disabilities, so has the range of solutions that Perkins Products has set out to provide. It purchased a small start-up business called Adaptive Technology Consulting, which offered consultation and training around accessible technology as well as products ranging from handheld GPS units and magnifiers to screen reader programs and refreshable braille keyboards.
Spurred on by the success of the Next Generation and SMART Brailler projects, Perkins Products has poured energy into pursuit of the best-of-the-best solutions – such as Hayden’s ZoomCapture – and the inspiration, creation and development of Perkins’ own assistive technology. Perkins’ historical existence as an “educator first” is one reason Morgan believes that Perkins Products has an invaluable advantage over the for-profit business world.
“We’re in a really unique position to see the needs of the folks we serve,” he said. “We’re here in the trenches. We’re living in a learning laboratory with teachers and kids. That allows us to see emerging needs much earlier (than for-profit companies). It allows us to pilot our projects, and do extended field testing to see firsthand how teachers teach, and how kids learn.”
One of the latest innovations to emerge from those “trenches” is the LightAide. Created by a partnership between Perkins Products and Philips, the device uses 224 LED lights to captivate learners with low vision, and introduce them to pre-literacy and basic math concepts through the use of lights and patterns. Launched in 2013, the product has sold in five countries to individual parents and entire school districts. While it was originally envisioned for people with low vision, Perkins Products continues to discover new potential.
“We’re finding this has a much wider appeal to groups beyond those affected by visual impairment,” said Martini. “Its usefulness as a teaching and learning tool has benefits for kids with autism, cognitive issues, behavior issues, traumatic brain injury and more.”
John Price, first hired in 2004 as a sales representative for the Brailler, sees real opportunity – and a critical need – for the multitude of services and solutions Perkins Products can provide to schools, governments and countries around the world.
“I see my job now as not being so much as a representative for the Perkins Brailler, but being more of a representative of Perkins: to find out what the needs are of a government, a ministry of education, or an association for the blind,” he said. “Perkins doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to teaching kids who are blind, but we’ve been doing it a long time, and we have a lot of answers. We’ve been given stewardship of one of the best products that’s ever been made. And I think with that comes a lot of responsibility.”
But vision alone is not enough. Unlike for-profit companies that roll their revenues into research and new product development, Perkins Products stays true to its non-profit identity and shares its financial gains with its parent organization in pursuit of Perkins’ overarching humanitarian goals.
“It’s amazingly rewarding,” said Morgan. “You know what you’re doing is touching lives around the globe. It’s also frustrating, because many of the lessons you thought you learned in business school and running a company don’t apply here.”
But even if the company bottom line isn’t the ultimate end goal, survival as a business in a rapidly changing market is still a daily challenge. With more consumer technology companies such as Apple developing mainstream products that include accessible features for people with disabilities, Perkins Products is determined to stay one step ahead. The company has partnered with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and the Federal Communications Commission to provide training to people who have low vision, blindness and deafblindness who can benefit from a range of assistive technologies.
Morgan envisions taking those services farther by rethinking Perkins Products as a one-stop shop for clients big and small, local and international. Such a plan would offer clients not only the technology, but assistance on both ends of the transaction: technology assessments to help the customer identify their needs at home, school or work and understand the solutions available to them; and an opportunity for training on the purchased technology to ensure the users’ full benefit. This complete spectrum of service will better serve individuals and companies, school districts and communities, and even governments and global ministries of education, Morgan said.
But no matter what the future holds for Perkins Products, continued evolution to provide the best assistive technology and services is a guarantee.
“In the past, we were just a Brailler company,” said Morgan. “We sold products. Now we’re a technology company offering a continuum of products that support literacy and communication needs of those with blindness or low vision.
“For the first time, we’re selling solutions.”