Throughout history, Perkins emerges stronger from world-changing events

An old black and white photo depicts a young girl smiling and touching an older woman’s face.

Elizabeth McClellan, a child born both deaf and blind due to a rubella infection, learned new communication skills after coming to Perkins.

June 24, 2020

In 1965, Edward J. Waterhouse, then-Director of Perkins, anticipated that the rubella outbreak that had been ravaging the country and world would put new stress on what little educational infrastructure existed for deafblind children at the time. Babies born to mothers who contracted rubella early in their pregnancy were often at risk of being both deaf and blind, and thousands of pregnant women were afflicted during the outbreak.

“There are signs of an approaching rubella wave,” Waterhouse wrote that year in The Lantern, the school’s former quarterly news publication. “Unfortunately, no country, including the United States, seems to be properly prepared to educate even moderate increases in the numbers of deafblind children.”

Looking back today, his prediction was accurate. But more importantly, his foresight also meant Perkins didn’t just respond to the crisis — it was prepared for it, even before it hit the East Coast.

With support from donors who understood the urgency of the situation at the time, the school quickly added classrooms, residences and evaluation suites so it would be ready for a growing population of children born deafblind, a common result of rubella. In 1969, a generous donor even helped the organization build out the Hilton Building, which to this day houses the Deafblind Program. And all that infrastructure was crucial, as Perkins’ deafblind population grew tenfold in the years after the outbreak.

Once the epidemic was over, the school didn’t de-emphasize the Deafblind Program, though. Perkins still leads the way in offering world-class, highly individualized learning for deafblind students and is renowned for teaching them everything from communication and play to academics and life skills. Plus, the Perkins International Program was established to bring lessons from our Deafblind Program to developing countries where rubella continued to impact children well into the 2000s.

But this is just one story. Since its inception in 1829, Perkins has responded to all manner of crises without wavering from our mission of uplifting children with visual impairments and additional disabilities. We enjoy that legacy in large part because of the community of supporters who has always believed in the potential of the children Perkins serves. And we are still living up to that legacy today in times of crisis because supporters like you keep that belief alive.

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