A couple of weeks ago, a cross-departmental team from PEM had the privilege and truly inspiring opportunity to visit the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. Perkins is a progressive school dedicated to improving the lives of the blind and the deafblind. You might not be familiar with the Perkins itself, but I bet you at least recognize the name of one of its most famous alumna. Helen Keller was an author, lecturer and political activist who campaigned for women and labor rights. She was also the first deafblind person in the US to receive a Bachelor’s degree, surmounting the isolation that is so often a barrier for deafblind people who can lack access to language of any kind.
Perkins is both incredibly modern and forward thinking, doing pioneering research in things like assistive technology, and it’s also incredibly storied with a history stretching back to its foundation in 1829.
This consistently pioneering approach is evident as soon as you step foot in the original purpose-built Perkins school, completed in 1912. It is the epitome of inclusive design. Every aspect of the building is considered with all its users in mind. As you walk through the hallways, you notice different styles of paving that — to the sensitive user — can help orient and direct you through the tread of your feet. Likewise, there are a variety of ceiling heights with varying acoustics that let you know whether you are in a classroom hallway or on your way to the gym.
Ah, the gym – where the world’s first circular track for the blind was built with a guide rail running the whole way around. It’s actually harder to use if you’re sighted, because you are then aware of the cavernous drop on the other side of the rail, as the track is actually a mezzanine above the Goalball pitch. Goalball is a team sports created especially for the blind as a means of assisting visually impaired vets after World War II. Since there is a huge range of vision impairment that means a person could be registered blind, Goalball athletes all wear heavy-duty eye masks to ensure that everybody has an equal amount of zero visibility. Using the Goalball ball that contains bells, the Perkins School team recently beat the Celtics, Boston’s champion basketball team.
The goal of our team, which we call DigitA11y, as in Digital Alleys, is to create an opensource solution for museums and other cultural institutions that increases accessibility to collections and experiences by adding to the museum’s body of accessible mobile content through crowdsourcing verbal description, American Sign Language video content and translations of museum content into other spoken and signed languages. We aim to answer the question “How can museums provide equal access to their content and collections in the format and through the means that each individual prefers?”
The Perkins School visit included my colleagues: Anna, project coordinator; Emily, evaluation team lead; Jim, tech team advisor; Halsey, tech team lead. We were there to discuss potential collaboration on the DigitA11y project. The project is going to need a lot of testing with real-world users, and who better than groups of smart, curious teenagers whose engagement with culture in all its forms is quick, incisive and imaginative?
With enthusiasm for the project and the idea of collaboration, Jean Smith from the Perkins, organized a stellar team for us to meet with. Despite being in competition with an Australian documentary team filming at the school that morning, Dave Power, Perkins CEO, Joe Martini, Director of Perkins Products; Joann Becker, Accessibility Product Specialist; and Marla Runyan, high school teacher and FORMER OLYMPIC LONG DISTANCE RUNNER – HOW COOL IS THAT?!; gave us the best of their attention, and advice.
It was so reassuring to hear their enthusiasm for the project, and their suggestions for just how revolutionary and useful it will be for the blind and deafblind community. Joann was so keen that she offered to start testing our preliminary, early stage MVP (minimal viable product – tech speak for pre-proto prototype) immediately. Typically, really early versions of apps are very creaky and full of bugs, so it’s a given that the user experience will be less than ideal and definitely extremely frustrating. That’s why the app will be developed in a fully iterative way, testing, retesting, tinkering.
One of the biggest takeaways from our discussion was a fundamental support for the prospect of true social inclusion – that, when visiting with sighted family and friends, members of the blind and deafblind community using DigitA11y won’t have to wait for a separate tour, or visit a separate room to access cultural content, before being able to join in the experience of their companions.
The visit ended with a trip to the amazing Grousbeck Center for Students and Technology. Opened in 2011, it is a state of the art, student-centered space for creativity and social engagement. Incredibly hi-tech recording and sound equipment are in sound booths that would be the envy of any major record label. Round the clock, Perkins students broadcast on Radio Perkins, a digital radio channel that you must all listen to.
Everybody left the visit on a high, with an agreement to start working together in the summer not just testing the app for technical success, but also to start working with Perkins students to produce content to contribute to the app. We will keep you posted on our efforts!