More than 500 guests arrived at Perkins School for the Blind’s annual Gala on Thursday anticipating an evening of great music, celebration and generosity. They didn’t expect to witness history being made.
But that’s exactly what happened when Perkins Board Chair Corinne Grousbeck announced the launch of BlindNewWorld – the first-ever social change campaign aimed at changing society’s misperceptions about people who are blind.
The national campaign is sponsored by Perkins and features an interactive website that shatters myths about blindness, two short films challenging viewers to reconsider their attitudes about people with visual impairment, and hashtag-ready messaging expected to spark a groundswell of support on social media.
“The goal is to start a conversation about blindness, to demystify it,” said Grousbeck. “We will enlighten sighted people about what the blind can do in the 21st century, and we’re going to start right now.”
In a recent survey commissioned by Perkins, more than half of respondents reported feeling uncomfortable around people who are blind. Eighty percent said they pitied people with visual impairments, a reaction Grousbeck called “disempowering” to people who are blind.
“As the thought leader in blind education, we feel compelled to do something about this,” she said.
Grousbeck’s announcement set the tone for the 11th annual Perkins Possibilities Gala, which raised $1.1 million to support Perkins’ life-changing programs for children who are blind. Of that amount, $170,000 was raised through the annual Technology Challenge to provide cutting-edge technology to students and alumni.
Perkins Secondary Program student Mikolai introduced the Challenge by describing the importance of technology in his everyday life. He uses an image identification app, TapTapSee, to correctly identify items in the grocery store, allowing him to shop independently. For someone who is blind, a can of green beans feels exactly the same as a can of dog food, he said.
“With TapTapSee, a terrible mistake is avoided,” he told the crowd with a grin.
Members of the ’70s R&B group Tavares pulled the Gala crowd onto the dance floor with classic hits like “More Than a Woman” and “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel.” They were joined by the Perkins Student Chorus, which separately performed some throw-back numbers of its own, including a Beatles medley backed by a 10-piece band from Berklee College of Music.
As the night wore on, guests mingled with Perkins students and alumni and heard from Perkins President and CEO Dave Power about major programs and initiatives, including the Expanded Core Curriculum and the new Pre-Employment Program, which equips teenagers who are blind with the skills they need to find employment and succeed on the job.
Power also described a new mobile app being developed by Perkins with funding from Google.org. The app will help people who are blind locate specific locations, like bus stops, by providing them with crowdsourced navigational clues.
“Technology is one of the ways that we’re going to make the world more accessible for people who are blind,” said Power. “This is our first mobile app at Perkins and it won’t be our last.”
The Gala was co-chaired by Grousbeck, long-time Perkins supporters Evelyn and Michael Treacy and “Friends” producer Kevin Bright, who has produced and directed the Gala for six consecutive years.
“It may seem like work to some but this is a gift that comes to me every year,” Bright said.