Sabriye Tenberken, a German who became blind at the age of 12, established the first school for blind Tibetan children in Lhasa in 1998. She had to overcome numerous obstacles, including official indifference, active hostility, and irregular financial assistance, but today her Rehabilitation and Training Center for the Blind is transforming the lives of a growing number of blind Tibetan youngsters. The achievements of its students are beginning to change traditional Tibetan beliefs that blindness is a punishment for their sins in previous lives.
The arithmetic problem is written on the board: 9730 divided by 78. We are in the third grade class room of a boarding school in a small Tibetan town. Four of the center's students – three girls and a boy – recently have transferred to the school, and Sabriye wants to find out how they are doing. The teacher fires the math question, and all four of the center's children raise their hands. The teacher calls on Nyima. She jumps up and rattles off the answer. “All four children are doing very well,” Sabriye whispers to me. “Recently there was no electricity one night, and our children were the only ones able to do their homework in the dark!” After class, as we prepare to leave, Gyenzen, a tall 18-year-old boy, suddenly starts crying. “What's the matter?” Sabriye asks, sitting down beside him. Gyenzen is too upset to speak. Putting her arm around him, Sabriye slowly calms him. Finally, Gyenzen reveals that some boys threw stones at him but he does not know who they are, since he cannot see. Sabriye hugs him. “You are smarter than they are,” she says. “They are probably jealous of you. Tell them that if they want to fight, they should come near you and fight with their hands!” Gyenzen nods and a smile brightens his tear streaked face. Sabriye sighs. “Blind people need a thick skin,” she says. “It is wrong to overprotect them - and impossible anyway. It is important to give them courage and techniques to survive such things.” Until mid-1998, there was not a single school for blind children in Tibet. Then, Sabriye Tenberken started a school in Lhasa with six blind Tibetan youngsters. Despite enormous hardships – financially, emotionally, and medically – Sabriye kept the school going. Today, the Center for the Rehabilitation of the Blind is well established and known throughout Tibet and other parts of China as a model institution for blind children.
Braille Without Borders (BWB) Tibet Disabled Persons' Federation