As the story goes, a little girl was picking up starfish stranded on a beach at low tide and throwing them back into the water. An adult walking by pointed out to her that the task was impossible with hundreds of them dying and her effort couldn’t make a difference. She pointed at the one she had just thrown back and replied, “It made a difference to that one.”
It was my birthday this past week, and I asked my friends on Facebook to participate in a fundraiser for the Perkins School for the Blind, where I serve as a trustee. The work of the school, and the Perkins Talking Book Library associated with it, is far more than depicted in the movie starring Patty Duke. It goes far beyond the campus in Watertown, or even the many Individual Education Plans in Massachusetts schools.
Perkins is a national leader in the education of visually impaired and multiply-disabled children. Three guiding principles encapsulate the ongoing work toward fostering independence and human potential for these children.
We believe every child can learn.
Perkins stands for the principle that all children have great potential and that education is a human right. Given tools and training to reach their fullest potential, children can develop whatever talents and abilities they possess.
Perkins comes to the student — in homes, hospitals, orphanages and schools. By helping parents and teachers and communities see what’s possible, attitudes and suppositions can be changed and improved.
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This is why Perkins is devoting resources to ending Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI), the birth defect that causes most childhood blindness. For 200 years, Perkins supported the principle that education and support allow every child and adult to contribute to society, and modern medicine and technology has made that goal one that can truly be realized.
We stand for disability inclusion.
We believe the world is made more vibrant when all people are seen, valued and empowered to make their voices heard. Parents who are terrified of what will happen to their children when they are gone, or siblings who worry about being able to take on a lifetime burden when they have their own lives to live, need the reassurance and support of us all to share the task of supporting those with disabilities to be able to help themselves.
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To make children able to become self-sufficient adults, education and training must be provided. It is not an accident that disability was not included in the Civil Rights Act in 1964; those with disabilities had to wait more than 25 years for discrimination against them to become illegal.
Even now, the everyday discrimination against the blind in a world of “online-only” access to public documents or lack of accommodation in housing and public buildings is met with a shrug and apologize about the expense. Teaching individuals and families about techniques and devices is a way to cope with everyday ignorance.
We believe that real change is global change.
Perkins is now an international institution. In more than 95 countries, Perkins-trained educators are teaching both students and teachers the techniques that allow disabled children to unlock themselves from a prison of darkness. Fewer than 10% of the 46 million children who are blind or visually impaired attend any kind of school.
Working with the LEGO Foundation, there are new early learning programs in the 11 nations in east, west and southern Africa. UNESCO is part of an initiative for accessible textbooks in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Partnerships in India and Brazil are creating new opportunities for children there.
Working with 250 partners in 65 countries, Perkins is transforming these lives.
And these are all individual lives.
When you stop to consider how many children — and adults — across the globe live in pain, darkness and deprivation, it is easy to become overwhelmed. There have always been these children; in ancient times they were killed quietly as they were too much of a burden to bother raising. The neglect and lack of opportunity could almost seem crueler.
But these are not a sad mass; they are a community of individuals, each with a different and distinctive talent to offer if we only allow that to happen. Each person educated and helped is unique and valuable.
So don’t despair. And may you throw many starfish.
Cynthia Stead is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times and can be contacted at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.