What comes next?

Perkins teachers are helping public school students with visual impairments map out their futures and make them a reality

Grace using her laptop in her kitchen at home.

Grace and her family have navigated the college search process with help from a Perkins itinerant transition specialist. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

Like many high school seniors, Grace is more excited than nervous at the prospect of heading to college. She’s visited several schools with her mother already and found a few she likes in Florida. After 18 New England winters, the promise of perpetual sunshine and warm temperatures outweighs any concerns about homesickness.

“Grace has got tremendous confidence, which is so appropriate,” said her mother, Mary-Liz Van Dyck. “I don’t know that she’s really feeling fear.”

As a parent, Van Dyck’s feelings are understandably more mixed. She’d love her daughter to attend school close to home, but recognizes the teenage desire for independence.

There’s also the fact that Grace is legally blind and will require more support than the average college freshman. A thousand miles away from her family, will she have what she needs to succeed and be happy?

Preparing for the future

Making the transition from high school to college, or to the working world, is a stressful time for most students and their parents. For those who are blind or visually impaired, beginning this next phase of life means breaking from carefully built routines and leaving teachers they have grown close with. It is often one of the most disorienting and unsettling times of their lives.

“For many years in blindness education the focus has been on what kids do K-12, but the focus now is on getting kids ready for what they’re going to do beyond school, whether it’s post-secondary or vocational,” said Teri Turgeon, director of Community Programs at Perkins. “What can they do? What are they interested in?”

Students enrolled at schools like Perkins are taught skills related to transition as part of the expanded core curriculum. These range from skills needed to live independently – like grocery shopping and laundry – to social skills and career education. For students who attend public school, however, transition is often less of a focus.

“Historically there hasn’t been much guidance in that (area),” said Van Dyck. “I think the public schools have been sort of scrambling to figure it out – this whole idea of ‘how do we assist students with disabilities?’”

Teaching transition

Special education students enrolled in public school are guaranteed access to transition services under Massachusetts and federal law. Last fall, Perkins began working with public schools to provide these services to students like Grace, who are enrolled in mainstream classes but require additional support.

“Part of what makes Perkins a really fantastic expert at transition is we understand how vision impacts development, and how that limits access to parts of the community,” Turgeon said. She used an example of a child with normal vision who enters a grocery store with his mother and sees check-out clerks ringing up sales, employees restocking the shelves and butchers packaging cuts of meat.

“Those are all jobs, and a sighted child will understand that when they’re old enough,” Turgeon said. “For a child who is blind, you have to talk them through it – help them bridge the gap.”

While preparing students for the future isn’t new to Perkins, this is the first time the school has offered transition services to students off-campus, Turgeon said. Courtney Tabor-Abbott, a transition specialist, works with students across Massachusetts to develop skills that will prepare them for college, a career or adult life in general. Meetings take place in person, over email or via skype and often include family members, teachers and other specialists.

“Transition is a big umbrella,” said Tabor-Abbott. “It includes a lot and it’s important as professionals to be working with parents and students and agencies and making sure there’s a clear path and a good connection.”

Tabor-Abbott has extensive background in the field. She was a vocational rehabilitation counselor for people with visual impairment in Maine. At Perkins, Tabor-Abbott works with students who are preparing for college, as well as those who are more vocationally oriented. Her overall focus is on helping students lead productive and well-rounded lives.

“My goal is a more whole-life focus,” said Tabor-Abbott. “It’s figuring out your work goals, your education goals and what your housing’s going to look like. A lot of what I help with is the development of essential skills that are so important for a successful transition process.”

Figuring out the next steps

In a recent meeting with Grace and her mother, Tabor-Abbott runs through a list of tips for applying to college. She encourages Grace to keep track of the adaptations she has in her high school, such as a special locker and extra time on tests, so she can discuss them with each college’s disability services office.

“It will be very telling for you. They could say, ‘Yeah we provide all sorts of accommodations,’ but they might not be able to answer a question like, ‘Well how are you going to help if I need help with the snow?’”

When meeting with students and their families, Tabor-Abbott often stresses the importance of reaching out to agencies like the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind for services and support. With Grace, she encourages her to demonstrate initiative by contacting her vocational rehabilitation counselor – an employment specialist assigned by the state to help people with disabilities. Establishing the relationship now will ensure prompt attention when she seeks help later on, Tabor-Abbott said. For Grace, this type of candid advice is welcome – and not something she always gets from her high school guidance counselor.

“There’s not a whole lot of support for visually impaired kids at my school,” she said. “Courtney has taught me to advocate for myself.”

For Van Dyck, the sessions have helped her visualize her daughter’s college experience and the resources that will help her succeed there – even if her parents are a plane ride away.

“When Grace made this connection with Courtney there was this feeling of ahh, here’s someone who truly gets it, who knows very practical things that Grace may encounter and things she should think about,” she said. “We feel incredibly grateful for that because it just makes our road a lot less frightening.”

Editor’s Note: After this article was written, Grace applied to five colleges and was accepted at all of them. Beginning this fall, she will be attending Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts, where she received a prestigious Presidential Scholarship.