Education: A New Doorway for the Human Spirit - Helen Keller’s Example Infuses a Transformative Partnership with Perkins School for the Blind and Hilton Foundation

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Helen Keller's birth anniversary offers an opportunity to examine a global mission, a unique partnership and the transformative power of education.

"The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me." —Helen Keller

Helen Keller’s example – a child deemed “uneducable” who blossomed into a world-renowned figure – demonstrates the power of education to transform...

On June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, a baby girl was born. Her life forever altered how the world understands “disability.” The bright baby girl became blind and deaf before the age of two, but her teacher helped Helen Keller unlock the brilliance that would inspire all of humanity. Today, the story of how Anne Sullivan opened up the intellect of the deafblind child is common knowledge. Every American child has the right and opportunity learn all that they are able.

Worldwide, however, 4.5 million children do not go to school simply because they are blind or deafblind. In developing countries or transitioning economies, the unemployment rate for people who are blind is 90 percent, even greater for individuals who are deafblind. Numbers such as these appear insurmountable at first glance, but not to the parents and teachers who see in each child the potential for a rich, fulfilling life. And not to Perkins and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation whose 24-year innovative partnership includes a long-term strategy to use prudent funding to build the capacity of education professionals to make positive, sustainable change in developing nations and to lift up the lives and hopes of children who are blind or deafblind.

Helen Keller’s example – a child deemed “uneducable” who blossomed into a world-renowned figure – demonstrates the power of education to transform individuals, whole families and, in turn, entire communities. That example brought together Perkins and the Hilton Foundation.

Conrad N. Hilton was born in 1887, the year that Anne Sullivan brought Helen Keller from Alabama to Perkins School for the Blind. He took lifelong inspiration from Keller’s story. His legacy expresses his conviction that all people “…deserve to be loved and encouraged ─ never to be abandoned…” Since 1989, Hilton Foundation support has helped Perkins International partner programs develop expertise that now brings learning, empowerment, and inclusion to 67 countries around the globe.

In Kenya, a girl who is deafblind was abandoned by her father. He could no longer afford to care for her. At a Perkins’ partner school, she learned to knit and weave. She now supports herself by teaching others how to knit so that they, too, can support themselves and their families.

A five-year-old boy in China had never spoken. Shunned by his village, he had only farm animals as playmates. A Perkins professional visited with him and explained to his family that the boy, indeed, could learn and communicate. Now, he charms his neighbors with tales of his escapades at the Perkins International partner school.

A woman in Brazil was advised to terminate her pregnancy. She was told her baby was “defective.” She refused. When she brought her infant son to a partner program, the whole family was trained in how to adapt. Despite local custom, his mother would not keep her son shut indoors. Then a neighbor brought out her child who is disabled. Others followed. Local schools established a special education program. One mother changed her society because, she says, the Hilton/Perkins program professionals “taught me that I could believe in my child. That’s what made the difference.”

Hilton and Perkins blazed a path to long-term, sustainable success by sharing expertise and cultivating fundraising and advocacy skills in partner programs, integrating communities, and advocating with governments. Thus, local programs have the tools to adapt as needs grow. Capacity expands to satisfy those needs. Families become better integrated into their communities and communities participate in shaping government policies.

"Twenty-five years ago, when the Hilton Foundation sought a way to make a difference in the lives of blind and multi-disabled youth around the world, the Perkins School for the Blind was identified as THE pre-eminent organization serving blind children,” said Steven M. Hilton, President and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and a grandson of Conrad N. Hilton. “We are extremely proud that our long-term support of Perkins has been the catalyst in educating, enabling and empowering blind children throughout the world. This landmark collaboration represents one of the largest commitments in Hilton Foundation history."

The results are exciting, and measurable. When the Hilton/Perkins partnership began in 1989, nine countries had programs for children who were deafblind or blind with multiple disabilities. Perkins now collaborates with hundreds of organizations and governments to strengthen sustainable programs and disability policies, and to promote literacy through braille. More than 80,000 children, families, and teachers benefit every year, each child, an inspiration that guides the Hilton Foundation’s work with Perkins International.

Society is transformed when people are genuinely empowered. Helen Keller said “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit,” a sentiment we all would do well to remember 133 years after that bright baby girl was born in Alabama.

By Steven M. Rothstein, President, Perkins School for the Blind

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Marilyn Beyer

Steven M. Rothstein, President
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