accessibility, DEI, Live, Perkins School for the Blind

How Perkins Prioritizes Accessibility with I.D.E.A.

The last five years have brought rapid developments in practices that support inclusion and belonging in organizations across all sectors of the economy, driven by an increased focus on social values and community relevance. Many organizations have launched a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative. We applaud these efforts and know they can go further. As one in four people have a disability, many DEI programs are missing a key piece: an A for accessibility.

Photo of Deana Criess, a woman smiling at the camera wearing a black top.
Deana Criess

MassTLC asked Deana Creiss, Senior Organizational Development Specialist at Perkins School for the Blind, to share how Perkins prioritizes accessibility in its inclusion and belonging strategies.

Please introduce yourself and Perkins School for the Blind.

My passion is building communities where everyone knows they are valued and belong. As the Senior Organizational Development Specialist at Perkins, I develop and deliver internal training to staff and students. One of the many initiatives I coordinate is our IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) Initiative, which ensures that everyone in our community has all the tools they need to be their authentic selves, so they can fully invest in our mission.

Many think of Perkins as the first school for the blind in the United States. We are that, and so much more. We work well beyond our campus in Watertown. We have experience working in 100 countries for over 100 years to unlock opportunities for children with multiple complex disabilities and visual impairments. We are infinitely innovating to solve longstanding and emerging problems facing our communities, our students and our families. Earlier this year, the Executive Director of the Howe Innovation Center at Perkins School for the Blind wrote a piece for MassTLC about our work to accelerate accessibility tech.

Can you explain the IDEA Initiative at Perkins?

If I had to sum up the IDEA Initiative in one word, it would be “access” — to everything our community has to offer, for everyone who wants it. Our work focuses on building a world where everyone belongs, and that work must begin on our campus, with our community. Our staff, board, volunteers, and partners are part of this shared commitment and embrace a vision that supports the holistic understanding and advancement of IDEA goals.

When talking about accessibility, I want to be sure that your readers understand that accessibility isn’t just about physical spaces and places, it includes the accessibility of digital places and tools. Can a visitor to our website who uses screen reading software effectively navigate, access and use the information? Can a staff member who has limited hand mobility successfully use all the software tools available to us?

Keeping accessibility top of mind benefits everyone – not just those with disabilities. It means thinking about access through other lenses. Have we created a community where everyone feels welcome and knows exactly how they can participate in opportunities? Do people have equal access to growth opportunities at Perkins? Have we considered economic barriers (making sure all events have no cost/low cost options)? Have we removed language barriers (options for native Spanish and ASL speakers, for example). Access means everyone not only has opportunities, but they also know how to engage in those opportunities and that they belong.

Can you tell me about the IDEA committee and how it works?

The IDEA Committee serves as an advisory group for Perkins School for the Blind, across all departments. From our campus in Watertown, MA, to our online presence, and in the countries we serve around the world, we strive to ensure that Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility are woven into the fabric of everything we do. That takes engagement from all parts of our organization.

Membership in the IDEA Committee is voluntary and open to staff at all levels and departments, locally and globally. Regardless of someone’s role at Perkins, the voices of our community are equal. We meet monthly to exchange ideas and feedback that can be taken to leadership for consideration and next steps.

In the past few years the IDEA committee must have many accomplishments. Can you share a few?

Pekins was founded on the idea that every child can learn. Our mission with IDEA is to take that same principle and apply it to our entire community. It means everyone has value, and that we are building a community, and world, where everyone belongs. We have worked hard to make that true in every corner of our organization.

We have built and deployed staff training around inclusion and belonging, including LGBTQIA+ Allyship; IDEA, Allyship, and Removing Bias; Digital Accessibility; and Disability Cultural Awareness and Etiquette. We launched an ongoing speaker series with our student radio station, Radio Perkins, that features panel discussions and interviews with members of historically marginalized communities. We host Education and Celebration Events for Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, our Pride Celebration each June (which grew out of a student suggestion and is now an organization-wide event) and our Disability Pride celebration in July. We also built online community conversation spaces for discussions around historically marginalized communities, including Black and African American Voices, Hispanic and Latinx Voices, The LGBTQIA+ Experience, Disability

Two members of Perkins staff stand outdoors at the Perkins Pride Parade on June 6th. They are standing at the cotton candy and popcorn table, where cotton candy is being made in the foreground by another staff member
Perkins Pride Parade on June 6th

Inclusion Experience and IDEA Advocates.

What advice do you have for an organization that wants to expand its DEI program to include accessibility?

Start today. At Perkins, we know accessibility and inclusion are human rights. Disability is about erasing stigma, changing attitudes and embracing people, perspectives and new ways of being that truly create a more vibrant, authentic reflection of our human race. It’s speaking up to ensure all people are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Everyone can have a role in breaking down society’s barriers to inclusion.

You have people with disabilities in your organization right now, you just might not know it, as some disabilities are non-apparent. Does your staff know how to disclose a disability? Does your staff know what to do when someone discloses? Do people feel comfortable disclosing? If you don’t know the needs of your community, you must create a system to find out what they need.

We know that Universal Design should be the norm, not the ideal, and while we can’t go back in time and ensure accessibility was built in from the start, we can take action to ensure it is a part of every conversation and project moving forward. Be sure that your website and digital communication tools are accessible for everyone. Are your digital assets compliant? Do your social media posts include image descriptions? If not, consider partnering with a digital accessibility expert, like our in-house consulting group, Perkins Access.

What’s next for the IDEA Committee?

The IDEA Initiative is continually evolving to serve the needs of our community. From planning and staffing community-wide events like our Pride celebration, to advising on major projects like future physical improvements to our Watertown campus, our work grows and adapts as we understand more about the needs of our team.

In July, as part of our Disability Pride celebration, we will share a video featuring members of our community talking about Disability inclusion and how we can be allies to our colleagues with disabilities.

How can the MassTLC community get involved?

We welcome volunteers and other types of support for our events. Check out our website for information on the numerous ways to partner with us. And, please join us in Watertown, September 30th for our third annual Everybody In! Walk/Move for Perkins to experience our community in action! IDEA has worked closely with the event organizers to ensure the event is a great day for everyone who wants to be involved. We have two routes people can choose from,  places to rest along the way, water stations, and ways to participate virtually.

Perkins School for the Blind Logo

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