Education is a fundamental right of all children, disabled or not

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Updated: Jan 13 2014, 16:08pm hrs
Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Massachusetts, US, is among the oldest schools in the world for the blind. On October 15, 2012, the global NGO shortened its name to Perkins, to reflect a mission that extends beyond the school in Watertown, into 67 countries. Today, Perkins is a leader in serving people with visual impairments and has carried out some initiatives in India, such as the Voice and Vision India, which works to increase educational opportunities for children in underserved urban and rural areas. In an interaction with Vikram Chaudhary of The Financial Express, the president of Perkins, Steven Rothstein, shares that approximately 4.5 million children around the world dont receive an education simply because they are blind. That needs to change, he says. Excerpts:

How is Perkins transforming the lives of the blind

We recently partnered with SOBTI, a small, collaborative school in Mumbai that serves students who are blind with other disabilities. One student, Guarav, lost his vision to cancer at age two. His parents almost gave up hope that he could get a good education until they discovered SOBTI. Now, six years later, Guarav has learnt to read and write Braille, and he dreams of going to college and becoming a doctor. Thats just one story, one person; at Perkins, we see the untapped potential in every child who is blind. We know that with the right education and training, people who are blind can lead productive, fulfilling lives. Success stories like Guarav happen every day, all over the world.

What have been your key achievements

Weve expanded our reach to 67 countries, and last year our international partners worked directly with 90,000 children, adults and teachers. Our Perkins products division, which offers accessible products like the Perkins Brailler, a kind of Braille typewriter, continues to expand into new markets. One of our most exciting initiatives is e-learning, which offers online training to teachers of the visually impaired. Its accessible anywhere, around the clock. Perkins has been educating children who are blind for more than 180 years, but e-learning is transforming our ability to share knowledge with blindness professionals.

Why the current focus on India

India is home to 25% of the worlds blind population, many of whom have additional disabilities. Not only is that a significant number of people who need our support, but three-quarters of them live in rural areas, where educational options are more limited. Were stepping up to meet this challenge. In fact, Voice and Vision India works to increase educational opportunities for children in underserved urban and rural areas. Were also offering more leadership development and training for educators and parents, which allows us to exponentially leverage our expertise to reach more children.

What are the method and techniques used for educating children in India

Our approach is the same in India and elsewhere. Its based on an empowerment model. We tailor lessons to each students unique abilities, using communication methods that work best for each child. Were strong believers in the power of literacy, so teaching students to read and write Braille is a high priority. Another crucial element is functional life skillsfor example, the ability to navigate independently, shop, handle money, and so on. These are things sighted kids pick up through observation, but must be explicitly taught to children who are blind. Most importantly, we believe in the students we work with. We believe in their ability to pursue their dreams. That belief inspires everything we do.

What is your network/partnership model in India

Perkins has been working in India since 1989, and weve built close relationships with our local partners, like SOBTI, the Helen Keller Institute, and many more. Our most important role is to help our partners increase their technical skills and knowledge, and expand the capacity of their schools, so more children can receive quality education. Earlier this year, we also hired a Delhi-based development officer to expand our fund-raising efforts, so we can provide more training resourcesto local partners.

How are you creating awareness about your various initiatives

Our first priority is to reach out to the families of children who are blind or multiply disabled, and let them know about services that are available. Weve found that person-to-person outreach is most effective, which is why we encourage our partners, families, parent groups and teachers to spread awareness in their own communities.

How many people have benefited globally and in India from your initiatives

Perkins touched the lives of 8,80,000 people last year. In India, we work with 22 schools that serve more than 4,500 students, and we trained over 1,000 teachers and 500 parents.

Have you received any sort of government support

Perkins International doesnt receive direct government support, but we do partner with numerous national organisations to implement initiatives, trainings and other programmes. Weve worked with the National Institute for Empowerment of People with Multiple Disabilities, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and the Rehabilitation Council of India, to name just a few.

What are the targets you have set for yourself

We understand how much work remains to be done, both in India and elsewhere. Of particular concern is the fact that approximately 4.5 million children around the world dont receive an education simply because they are blind. We believe education is a fundamental right for all children, disabled or not.

Focusing on India, over the next three years we hope to effectively double the number of children we reach who are blind and multiply disabled, and the number of teachers we train. Well achieve this by scaling up our partnerships and by building more locally sustainable educational capacity. Its an ambitious agenda, but it will make a huge difference to the lives of blind children. It will give them hope for a better future.