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perkins school for the blind (investigating normal, week 3)

Investigating Normal spent its third week visiting the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. Perkins is a famous and storied institution, with vast historical archives and a truly global contemporary influence. I wanted students to see both the archival tools and instruments that have been built there for over a century and a half; I also wanted them to glimpse the very latest technological and architectural changes to the school, to witness the response to its changing population.

We spent time in the Perkins archives with a tour guide from the school, taking in instruments from the 19th and 20th centuries built for the blind and deaf-blind students who lived there. Things like this chess set from 1931, each piece of which is tactilely distinct:

a wood and brass chess set, where squares have peg holes for each playing piece, and each brass unit has distinctive markings on top.

Or this tactile globe from the mid-1800s, with its spatial relationships articulated to scale:

The enormous globe in the main hall, tall as the average adult body, painted brightly and covered with tactile mountain ridges and other land forms.

A detail of the globe, with its ridges and contrasting color scheme shown in detail.

This hand model shows how a deaf-blind student would be trained to finger-spell, where the letters are formed in sign language, and the listener understands them by touch:

A ceramic adult-sized sculpture of a hand, with letters at each knuckle joint and finger tip.

We saw a gorgeous example of Boston Line Type, the literal tactile equivalent of English that preceded Braille. This is Charles Dickens’s “The Old Curiosity Shop,” a gift Dickens donated to the school after a visit there.

A close up of engraved "Boston Line Type," white raised English language letters, formed with squarish corners for easier identification.

a very close look at Boston line type

Boston Line Type was eventually abandoned in favor of Braille; this switch is a fascinating and surprising one—one for a longer piece of writing.

Once the switch was made, Perkins pioneered the design of early Braillers:

A simple metal Brailler from the nineteenth century, with 8 keys for typing and the look of a musical instrument

They still make the most commonly used Braillers in the world:

A child carries a new model blue Brailler by a handle, its white plastic keys now numbering 9, and its body encased like a typewriter.

We also saw sights from their tactile museum, full of artifacts that students use today to further experience physical phenomena: architectural models, animal taxidermy, mechanical phenomena. Like this animal puzzle, a wall hanging with multiple depths of sculptural form:

A wall hanging of multiple wood animal faces at various depths and in various wood stains. You can feel the heads of a tiger, a rhinoceros, a flamingo, giraffe, and many more.

We spent a good hour at the Assistive Device Center, where low-tech, affordable and radically customized furniture is being built for students at Perkins and all over the state. The staff at the device center partner with occupational and physical therapists, teachers, and parents to make precisely calibrated structures for all kinds of bodies. Since the 1980s, the school’s charter has expanded to serve the needs of an increasingly complex population, for whom blindness attends other physical and developmental challenges—and the designs for equipment have expanded in response.

Molly Campbell, the director, walked us through the deliberately simple tools they use there—the better to welcome non-experts to the building process. Largely staffed by volunteers, the center is a brilliant example of “design for one”: It’s user-centered to the last half inch, and tailored often to very specific wishes and needs of a single child. Since it’s affordably built, alterations and further iterations are easily accommodated. You’ll be hearing more from me about the work at the center and it counterpart, the Adaptive Design Association, in the future. But for now—here’s Molly showing my students her cutlery-adapted scorer, and a finished floor sitter for an older child, with the details of its beautiful joinery.

Students around a table while Molly scores a piece of cardboard with the blunt end of a fork.

A floor sitter of cardboard with black neoprene straps for support, arm rests and a wide base.

A back view of the floor sitter, with an extended spine for support and holes for the straps to loop through. Ribs provide more vertical support all along the sides.

A detail of the paper tape that covers all joints and raw edges, making a beautifully smooth, organic piece of furniture.

There was so much more we saw, and much beyond that we missed! We’ve been referring to the work at Perkins, directly and directly, in class ever since.

A tub with scraps of cardboard, overflowing, all shapes and sizes.

Photos by me, my student Yusuke Goto, and the modern Brailler via.

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