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BlindNewWorld week aims to break down barriers for the visually impaired

Sponsored by Perkins School for the Blind, the campaign's goal is to eventually provide more opportunities for the 125,000 Massachusetts residents with vision loss.

Kate Katulak is something of an extreme adventurer. Every physical challenge she has undertaken, from triathlons to skydiving to rock climbing, the 30-year-old has tackled with spirited abandon.

But when it comes to social interactions, Katulak, who is blind, employs a more calculated approach. As a teacher at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Katulak uses the knowledge and experience she has gained since losing her sight at 15 to teach children those social skills. Her curriculum has expanded in recent years to include teaching students how to use an iPhone, by mastering a screen reader with voiceover technology.

To make a new friend or even interact with strangers, many people "make eye contact, smile and strike up a conversation," Katulak said. "For someone who is blind and can’t see who is around them, it’s difficult to have those ongoing casual interactions."

A new statewide campaign that Perkins School is sponsoring aims to change that. Called BlindNewWorld Week, the initiative seeks to bring sighted and visually impaired people together. In so doing, it will try to help provide more opportunities for the 125,000 Massachusetts residents with vision loss.

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The week kicked off Monday, when Gov. Charlie Baker signed his first braille proclamation, and will culminate with a “Blind Date” event on Saturday, March 11. The event encourages sighted and visually impaired people to invite each other out for a day. Organizations like Not Your Average Joe’s restaurants, Showcase Cinemas and cultural institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of Science have partnered with BlindNewWorld to offer incentives for those participating.

Katulak hopes the event will help break down some of the barriers between sighted and visually impaired people. “We’re normal just like you and have interests just like everyone,” she said.

Founded in 1829, Perkins serves about 200 students from ages 3 to 22, on its campus along the Charles River. Helen Keller studied there, beginning when she was 8, and said, "Oh, what happiness! To talk freely with other children! To feel at home in the great world!"

Perkins began BlindNewWorld as a general campaign last April. This is the first dedicated week to highlight the initiative.

Besides raising awareness, organizers say, the week is also about action, which means finding new ways to think about inclusion when it comes to employment, education, innovation and transportation.

Last year, Perkins received a grant from Google to create Blind Ways, an app that helps bring the visually impaired directly to a bus stop. Regular GPS technology can only direct a person to within 30 feet of their destination, not close enough for a blind person who wants to wait at a bus stop.

It’s technological innovations like these, Katulak said, that will help the visually impaired become more active participants in everyday life that most people take for granted.

“I think the more and more we have weeks dedicated to promoting awareness about blindness, large companies like Google will be more willing to put money into to fund initiatives,” Katulak said.

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