A century ago Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college. In 2013, Haben Girma, the deaf-blind daughter of immigrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea, graduated from Harvard Law School, demonstrating again that disabilities need not limit one’s horizons.

Black and white photo of woman in graduation gown and mortar board (© AP Images)
Helen Keller graduated with honors from Radcliffe College in 1904, becoming the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. (© AP Images)

Their achievements also are a testament to the skills of their teachers — in Keller’s case, her celebrated tutor Anne Sullivan, and for Girma the special education teachers in the regular public schools she attended in Oakland, California.

Not all children with multiple disabilities have the opportunity to learn from such skilled educators who can unlock their potential.

The Perkins School for the Blind — from which Sullivan graduated and where Keller spent four years — is setting out to change that with a global initiative to train 1 million special educators by 2030.

The Massachusetts-based Perkins School has tested a three-week training course for teachers and community-based rehabilitation workers in Mumbai, India, and is working with other countries to train teachers to become the trainers.

The scope of the challenge is vast in developing countries with limited special education services for children who are deaf and blind or have other serious disabilities in addition to visual impairment.

Child speaking to woman (© Brian Messenger/Perkins School for the Blind)
Nikolina Juric of the Perkins School works with a child at a daycare and rehabilitation program in Zagreb, Croatia. (© Brian Messenger/Perkins School for the Blind)

Six million students need more help

“Often parents do not see the value of educating the child who cannot see or cannot hear,” UNICEF’s Gopal Mitra, a specialist on disabilities, told Voice of America. “The stigma and discrimination that exist around disabilities … has a wide ranging impact.”

The Perkins School has long trained teachers of the deaf and blind for other countries, and Perkins experts work with governments to develop appropriate programs for students from infancy to adulthood. “We have the tools to help them,” says Michael Delaney, executive director of the Perkins International Academy.

The new Perkins International Academy aims to dramatically expand the ranks of special educators. Perkins estimates 6 million blind or visually impaired children with other disabilities are inadequately served now.

Young student studying (© Brian Messenger/Perkins School for the Blind)
A 6-year-old learns letters and numbers in a class for blind and deaf students in Iganga, Uganda. (© Brian Messenger/Perkins School for the Blind)

In Mumbai last December, Perkins tested a course that combined lectures, videos and slide shows with group exercises. The two dozen special education teachers and community rehabilitation workers from across India who took the course told Perkins instructor Anuradha Mungi they’d never before gotten such practical advice.

Perkins also tested an online version of the course in Argentina, but Marianne Riggio, director of Perkins’ Educational Leadership Program, says, “We’re hoping to do as much training as possible face-to-face to build up cadres of trainers around the world.”

Perkins is seeking both government and philanthropic support to help reach its goal.