Bringing a Business Mindset to Educating Visually Impaired Students
The country’s oldest school for blind students turns to mobile apps, online courses, and driverless cars.
Perkins uses technology to expand its reach to teachers of visually impaired students in 45 countries, including India. | Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
Like most new fathers, when Dave Power welcomed his first child, David, into the world, it was one of the happiest days of his life. It was also one of the most stressful. “His eyes never fully developed,” says Power. “It was apparent from the beginning that he was blind.” This was 1988, long before smartphones. Power rushed to a hospital pay phone and tore through the Yellow Pages in search of information. He found Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., the oldest school for visually impaired people in the United States. Perkins has been an integral part of Power’s life ever since.
Dave Power | Courtesy of the Perkins School for the Blind
Today, Power is president and CEO of the 187-year-old school, a role that he took on in 2014. Power spent nearly a decade as a venture capitalist with Fidelity Ventures and Charles River Ventures, evaluating high-tech startups and looking for companies that had the greatest potential for impact. Prior to that he held a number of executive roles in enterprise technology companies such as Sun Microsystems and RSA Security, and co-founded a consultancy that advised technology companies. He was a trustee at Perkins for nine years. When the board began a CEO search, Power raised his hand, looking to combine a decades-long career in technology with his personal experience of raising a deaf-blind child to expand Perkins’ global reach.
According to the National Federation for the Blind, 7.3 million Americans 18 and older are visually impaired. Power would love to see all of them live rich, independent lives, and he believes innovation is a big part of the solution. In the past few months, Perkins has tested driverless vehicles, launched an online course on how to recruit and manage people with disabilities, and introduced BlindWays, a crowdsourcing mobile app that helps visually impaired people find bus stops. Up next: robotics, drones, and virtual reality.
Power earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he was an Arjay Miller Scholar, in 1980.
You had an impressive career in technology before moving over to education. What does your role at Perkins have in common with your previous leadership roles?
The strategic questions are the same: Whom do we serve? Why are we doing this? What is sustainable? You need to make sure the organization is growing and servicing its constituents well. It has to be financially sound.
What lessons from your previous career are you applying?
Innovation is the process of uncovering unsolved problems that are worth solving. I teach design thinking at Harvard. The first thing I did when I came to Perkins was ask the leaders of our five operating groups to identify their customers, how their needs are changing, and how we can be more relevant.
In the U.S., hiring managers talk a lot about diversity but not about disability. We are partnering with Uber, Harvard, Dunkin’ Donuts, State Street Corporation, and more than 35 other companies to help them hire more people who are blind.
I introduced online education to the Perkins School as a way to extend our reach. We created an online course for other companies to teach them how to hire people with visual impairments. We also provide webinars and courses and issue certificates like an online university. We’ve created an international online community for teachers of students who are visually impaired. We have teachers in Egypt, Myanmar, and Indonesia sharing teaching plans over a private network.
Worldwide, 12 million children are blind and need special education. About half of them don’t go to school because they are blind and have additional disabilities. Many are kept at home or in orphanages. One of the things we do is make these communities aware that these kids can learn. Our engine for growth is teacher training. We created a standard teaching module, which we are rolling out in Argentina and India.
What was the hardest disconnect for you as you transitioned from leading a business to leading a school?
Perkins has teachers as a big part of its workforce. Teachers aren’t as philosophically tied to the notion of incentive compensation as, say, MBAs are. Also, we are below capacity at the school. Financially that is not ideal. Previously the school relied on referrals. When I got here and said we needed to do enrollment marketing, people were like, “Oh, this is the business guy.”
How many students do you reach?
We teach 200 students at our campus and another 400 off campus. Nationally, we are the leading online university for teachers of the visually impaired. They, in turn, teach tens of thousands of kids. We are also an international NGO and teach teachers of the visually impaired in developing countries. Last year we reached 70,000 students, parents, teachers, and other professionals in 45 countries. We also distribute free reading material to more than 25,000 people who are visually impaired through our library, and we offer specialized products and services to visually impaired people through Perkins Solutions. We are the only diversified blindness organization in the world.
In addition to blindness, you mention other special needs. What’s the typical profile of a Perkins student?
When they and their families come to us, they are children and young adults from newborn to age 22. The students are legally blind, ranging from low vision to blindness. The biggest source of blindness in infants today is a neurological disorder called cortical visual impairment. It’s rooted in the connection between the eye and the brain, and is most commonly found in premature babies.
Half of all visually impaired students also have a second impairment. Many children who are blind also have cerebral palsy or hearing loss. Perkins was the first school to teach the deafblind. Helen Keller was taught here.
You also mentioned families. What do you teach them?
Families come to us because the process of learning if you are visually impaired is challenging in a way that none of those parents — and few school systems — are prepared for. Every child who is visually impaired is missing a big component for independence in life. They are subjected to a lack of incidental learning because they can’t see what’s around them.
How did you learn to care for and teach your son, David? Did he attend Perkins?
It took five or six years for us to figure out what he was capable of doing. You don’t know these things until they grow up. You watch to see if they learn to walk, read, communicate. I was unable to think more than one year ahead. Perkins was helpful. We attended an outreach program there since he was a toddler. You see that you are not the first family who has gone through this. You find hope. David was a member of the Perkins Deafblind Program Class of 2009.
What are your biggest challenges right now at the school?
Our biggest challenge is spreading the word about the work we’re doing — which allows us to raise more money and grow our impact. A lot of people don’t know the extent of our international mission.
In the U.S., three of every four adults who are blind do not participate in the workforce, 60% of visually impaired students who enter college never finish, and only 10% of students who are blind learn braille — a critical skill for employment. We provide specialized knowledge around what these kids need to do to be successful as adults. Braille is only a piece of that — social skills are 10 times more important. Perkins’ expanded core curriculum teaches social skills and self-determination.
What current technology has the greatest potential to change the lives of the visually impaired?
Autonomous vehicles! A car company is testing their first autonomous car here on our campus. Transportation is a barrier to employment for people who are blind. We received a Google Disability Challenge grant for an idea for a bus stop finder that would use crowdsourcing similar to Waze to help people find bus stops using landmarks. The result is the BlindWays iPhone app introduced first in Boston with a plan to expand to other cities.
I have an information technology advisory group of eight technologists who meet once a quarter to talk about technology that can help blind and disabled people. We talk about robotics, autonomous vehicles, mobile apps, navigation, access to information. We’re looking to support emerging technology while also looking for things we can commercialize.
Audio is a big part of information access for the blind. They can listen to audio recordings from newspapers and audio books at very high speed — faster than you would recognize — three to five times faster than normal speech. The KNFB Reader takes a picture of a page of text and converts it to voice. In reverse, there are technologies that convert from voice to braille and online text. An app called TapTapSee lets you point the phone at something and take a picture of it. You wait 10 seconds and it tells you what that object is.
What’s next? What does the future look like for people who are blind?
Technology will close the gap so that people who are blind have fewer disadvantages. We will come up with even better ways to access information using mobile devices. We already use mobile phones for outdoor navigation. Why not indoor?
A lot is happening in robotics. Someone just came up with a commercial drone to allow a runner who is blind to run around a race track. Robots can clean your home. They can catalog your medicine. Augmented reality and virtual reality are coming as well. Imagine you are a physics teacher trying to describe a sphere. With VR you could make a person feel resistance as if they are touching an object. The best technologies will be those that work for everybody and happen to benefit people who are blind.
How has this new career affected you personally?
We have many people who are blind on our staff, and 200 students on campus. You begin to interact with people as people, and look through the disability. You become more aware of basic etiquette. It’s OK to say, “Nice to see you,” but you shouldn’t pet the guide dog. And if you want to guide someone who is blind, don’t grab their arms or hands, just offer your elbow. You offer to help without making someone feel helpless. In meetings, you always start by introducing everyone who is around the table.
What is the biggest misconception or misunderstanding about people who are blind?
Most people are shocked to learn how many people who are blind are not employed. Yet people who are blind can do everything you could imagine. They are software developers and chefs; they climb mountains. People who are blind don’t think of themselves as blind or impaired but as people who happen to have lost their sight.
What’s the best business book you’ve ever read?
I have two favorites: First is The Marketing Imagination by Theodore Levitt. That book clued me into a lot of concepts of marketing, which I brought to the technology industry. Also, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Trust is the foundation on which every organization is built.
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