Blinds find a new life in Tibet by Paul Kronanberg & Sabriye Tenberker
It is 7 o’clock in the morning. The first sounds of people waking up are heard on the courtyard of the “Project for the Blind, Tibet”. It is very cold. In the dormitory, 15 blind children get up to start a new day of school.. Breakfast, watery rice-pudding, tsampa and butter-tea will be served in a few minutes. The children like this food very much. This day is another one in which they will learn to write and read. They are highly motivated and straight after their morning meal, they get up and walk to the classroom where they start preparations for today’s lessons.
On wooden boards Velcro dots are glued in groups of six. Every group represents the dots of one Braille Character.
The children first learn the script in this rough form. Later when the motor skills and movements of the hand are trained, and all the characters are learned, they switch to Braille on paper. Sabriye Tenberken (German, 29), herself blind, developed the Tibetan Braille script initially for her own use at the Bonn university where she studied Central Asian sciences. Now this script is being used here. In addition to this script, the children learn Chinese Braille, English Braille and the basics of mathematics and arithmetics. Further they are trained in mobility and skills to make the daily living. Together with Paul Kronenberg, (Dutch, 31) Sabriye Tenberken founded the “Project for the Blind, Tibet”.
In Tibet, religion plays an important role in the treatment of the blind and the handicapped. If a person is blind or handicapped it can be seen as a punishment for bad behaviour in a previous life. So why should they help these people? Nowadays, a lot of Tibetans visit the project and they see that the children are very happy and that they have the ability to read, write, walk independently, play, wash themselves and their clothes. The staff of the project explains what is wrong with the eyes of the children and the Tibetans respect the children as they are. This is generally a very important step towards complete acceptance of the blind in the society .
At present 15 blind children are receiving education. The infrastructure in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.) is not very well developed. The country is very big and the distance between villages stretches vastly. The children who come from remote villages are boarded in the school. In the future the children will be housed with guest-families in Lhasa. Then they will visit their school as “day-scholars.”
After two years of training in the Project for the Blind, Tibet they will be integrated in regular elementary schools in their villages. Because of religious reasons or overprotection, some children are locked away in dark rooms for a great part of their lives. A few children with such a background once came to the school. At first they were very shy and hardly looked like human beings at all. It showed immediately how important it is to confront such children with other children that have an equal “way of living”. They suddenly find out that they are not the only ones in the world who are blind. They exchange experiences and since they are in a place where everyone is being treated equally, within days they grow into respected humans.
According to official statistics more than 10 thousand of the 2.5 million inhabitants of the T.A.R. are blind. Compared to most areas in the world this is well above the average ratio. Causes of visual impairment or blindness are both climatic and hygienic: dust, wind, high ultraviolet light radiation, soot in houses caused by heating with coal or yak dung, lack of vitamin A at an early age. Inadequate medical care has also played a role. Cataract is widespread. Red Cross and several private organisations set up eye-camps where cataract operations are being performed and local doctors are taught to do the procedure. However, there is a large group of blind people that can’t be helped this way. It was for this group of people the Project for the Blind, Tibet was founded.
In June 1998 the first school for the blind in the T.A.R. in China opened. This represented a small step in the project for the blind there. It was the beginning of a much bigger project which aims to give blind people a chance to participate in society.
In addition to the school for the blind, “the Project for the Blind, Tibet” plans to:
1. Start Braille schoolbook production – translating schoolbooks into the Tibetan Braille script.
2. Implement a re-integration program facilitating the return to local schools and home life.
3. Start vocational trainings to give the blind opportunity and skills to generate their own income.
Professional skill training will incorporate massage therapy, physiotherapy, animal husbandry, agriculture, knitting, candle making and the like which will help address their problems.
The goal is to start all four programs within four years and to hand over the project to local staff and the community that can give continuity to the work.