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Before the opening of the Project, blind children in the Tibet Autonomous Region did not have access to education. They led a life on the margin of society with few chances of integration. According to official statistics 30.000 of the 2.5 million inhabitants of the T.A.R. are blind or highly visually impaired. Compared to most areas in the world this is well above the average ratio. The causes of visual impairment or blindness are both climatic and hygienic: dust, wind, high ultra-violet light radiation, soot in houses caused by heating with coal and/or yak dung, and lack of vitamin A at an early age. Inadequate medical care also plays a role. Cataracts are widespread. Indeed governmental and private organizations have set up eye-camps where medical surgery is 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. For this group of people the rehabilitation and training centre for the blind, has been established.

In the summer of 1997 Sabriye Tenberken, blind herself, travelled within the T.A.R to investigate the possibility of providing training for Tibetan blind and visually impaired people. Sabriye realised there were no programs educating and rehabilitating blind people within the T.A.R. She then took the initiative to found the present project. For the start of the project she received help from a local school in Lhasa which provided  space. A local counterpart took care of all the official paperwork.

Tibetan Braille
Part of the Tibetan Braille script developed by Sabriye Tenberken in 1992 at the Friedrich-Willhelms
University, bonn, 1992.
Initially for her own use in her study of Tibetology at Bonn university, Sabriye developed a Tibetan script for the blind. This script combines the principles of the Braille system with the special features of the Tibetan syllable-based script. This script for the blind was submitted for close examination to an eminent Tibetan scholar, who found it to be readily understandable, simple, and easy to learn. As Tibetans until now had had no script for the blind, he suggested to Sabriye that she let blind Tibetans take use of it.


First step: preparatory school for blind children

In May 1998 Sabriye Tenberken (German) and Paul Kronenberg (Dutch) left Europe to establish the Rehabilitation and Training Centre for the Blind, Tibet, starting with the preparatory school for elementary school children. After arranging all the necessary requirements, 6 children were collected from different villages to board at the school. The children came from different parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region and had to get used to each other's dialects. A local teacher was found and within a couple of days she was instructed in the Tibetan Braille script. The children learned the Tibetan Braille alphabet on wooden boards with Velcro dots. They worked with amazing enthusiasm and within just 6 weeks they knew all the 30 Tibetan characters and were able to count in three different languages (Tibetan, Chinese and English).

background information on some of the children

Tenzin is 14 years old. He comes from a little village within the Lhasa district. His parents are divorced, and he lives with his mother and his little brother. Tenzin belongs to the few blind children who were reasonably well integrated in his village. He has friends and had some tasks. While his friends were attending school he took care of the village yaks and goats. Through Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) Tenzin heard about the Project for the Blind, Tibet. He wasn't used to washing every day and the MSF-hygiene-trainers told him as a joke that only clean blind children could attend this school. Ever since he obeyed the hygienic instructions to wash daily. He was very
eager to attend the school. Tenzin is a very social and intelligent child, who after only a few months learned to read and write the Tibetan, Chinese and English Braillescripts fluently. When we asked him about future profession plans, his answer was that he wants to study and he wants to learn massage and physiotherapy. He started in this class in 2001.

Norbu is 14 years old. He comes from a very remote little farming village close to Shigatse. He has a little vision on his left eye, but not enough to attend a regular school. Norbu is very playful and likes ball games or just to run around. He is a fast learner and makes friends  with other children very easily As soon as the training farm has been established he will start in the cheeseproduction.

Yudon is 14 years old. She comes from a farming village close to Lhasa. Being the youngest of six sisters and brothers she is very independent in learning and playing. Yudon wants to become a teacher. In October this year she was integrated into a regular school.

Chile is 13 years old. He comes from a village in the Drigung area, about 130 km north east of Lhasa. His parents are poor peasants. He has one younger sister and within the village he has a lot of friends. He is the comedian of the school and he loves to sing too. He entertains everyone around him at all times, in all activities. younger sister and within the village he has a lot of friends. He is the comedian of the school and he loves to sing too. He entertains everyone around him at all times, in all activities. He has been trained in the music class was integrated in his village in the Oct 2003.

Metoq is 15 years old and the oldest in the class. One day when she was 8, she was playing in the fields with some friends when they found a grenade. While playing withit, it exploded and she lost pretty much all her eyesight. With the help of glasses she sees a little, but not enough to attend a regular school. Her parents live north of Lhasa. Metoq is the leader of the schoolclass. Early in the morning before classes officially start, she lines up the other children and exercises the Tibetan Alphabet. She is very neat and she is a great help for the housemother and father. Tenzin Metoq was integrated in her home in Oct 2003. She wants to start a shop together with her mother.

Students reading and writing Braille

Staff of the training centre

  • A housemother and a housefather and a gatekeeper are employed.
    They take care of the children at all times, except when the children attend classes.
  • A cook prepares all the meals for the children and the staff.
  • Three teachers have been trained by Sabriye Tenberken to teach the children the Tibetan, Chinese and English Braille systems, and in addition they also teach mathematics, orientation and daily living skills. An additional English-teacher has been employed. He became blind through an accident and was trained by the first three teachers.
  • In autumn 2000 two blind massage trainers started the massage and physiotherapy-training with two students who will later become teacher for the massage-training centre.
  • Since March 2001 a famous blind musician took over the music-classes. He is training 4 talented students to become professional singers.
  • In 2002 one staffmember has been employed to pruduce Braille school books.

Leisure time

  • The children love to play ball games. The ball is filled with a few rice grains or a small bell, so the children hear where the ball is.
  • Sculpturing tsampa is a very important way  of  training the sensitivity of fingertips and hands. Tsampa is the main traditional food in Tibet, it is made out of roasted barley mixed with yak butter.  It is also often used as a material to mould sculptures.
  • All of the children love to sing and dance. Now they have also discovered the fun of playing musical instruments, such as drums, flutes and bells. Apparently any instrument that produces a lot of noise is welcome.
  • The children regularly paint.
  • The children  like to write stories and like to play theatre plays.

blind students in several classes

1. Preparatory school for the Blind
Since the population of blind people in the T.A.R. is very widespread, it has been decided to have the blind children boarded in Lhasa and be trained at the centre. From a financial, organisational and logistic perspective it would simply be too complicated to set up an individual training program in the very remote areas. With blind people boarding at the school, training and education can be given much more effectively. Being taken out of their familiar surroundings for a certain period of time, they will have to adjust to a new environment. This helps them to accept and learn the
techniques for the blind more easily. Additionally the blind have the opportunity to communicate with other blind people and exchange experiences and the problems they face in their respective home situations. During their one or two years of training, they hopefully will gain enough self-confidence to cope with daily life independently. The preparatory school for the Blind will provide classes and housing for children aged between 5 and 15.  The training for the students will last for one to two years. At first the students receive an intensive training in orientation, mobility and daily living skills (orientation in a room / school compound, walking with a cane, eating with chopsticks and daily hygienic skills) followed by a training in the Tibetan, Chinese, English and mathematical Braille script. In addition to the training of the special techniques for the blind, the students will also be taught in basic colloquial Chinese and English language skills. All students who attend a regular school after a one or two year's training will be introduced to schoolbooks which are used in the first four elementary school classes. The goal of the preparatory school is that after completion of the basic training the young students will be integrated into regular local elementary schools.

2. Vocational / skills training
The following are possible professions or skills that can be performed by blind
people in the T.A.R.:

  • Tibetan and Chinese medical massage, pulse diagnosis, acupressure:  The professions of medical masseur and physiotherapist are within the PR China reserved for the blind and the deaf. Two blind in Chengdu educated medical massage trainers were found who started up this program in the autumn of 2000.  In May 2001 , April 2002 and April 2003a blind physiotherapist from Switzerland, Monique Assal, came to Lhasa to train the trainees and one massage btrainer in the basics of physiotherapy.
  • Musical training: especially talented blind students are trained by a professional musician in singing, composing and playing musical instruments.
  • Animal husbandry: Milk, yoghurt, cheese production (Summer 2004)
  • Agriculture: Cultivating vegetable and grain. (Summer 2004)
  • Handicrafts: Knitting, weaving, pottery, carpentry , basket making. (Summer 2004)
  • In the centre in Lhasa the students are trained in the use of a computer.

3. A workshop for the production of educational school materials.
To provide reading and working materials for the students attending the school and the vocational training program, a workshop for the production of Tibetan Braille materials has been established. A computer program to convert written Tibetan into Tibetan Braille has been developed by a German blind mathematician, Eberhard Hahn. Tibetan texts can be typed into a computer through Wylie transliteration, and the program converts this transliteration into Tibetan Braille, which is then printed in Braille. The first Tibetan Braille books were produced in August 2001.

4. Self-Integration Project
Only shortly after the project started it showed that the impact of the project on the students was a very positive one. Children who came from backgrounds in which they were completely excluded from society discovered that they were not the only ones with a similar fate. The students were able to share their experiences and they were confronted with blind people who were able to perform different tasks and professions. All students were treated the same. Within days the students grew stronger and also their self confidence increased considerably. In case a student mentioned that he couldn’t do a certain task, the teachers and staff of the project replied telling them that the blind teachers or Sabriye was able to perform the task and they also could not see. Within the project the students showed that their increasing self confidence was a very important step to be able to face the daily society. One day, a few of the students walked in the centre of Lhasa and some Nomads very rudely shouted at them: ”Hey, you blind fools!!”. Kienzen, the oldest of the small group turned around and told the nomad that yes, he is blind but he is not a fool. “I am going to school, I can read and write! Can you do that?”. “I can even read and write in the dark! Can you do that?”The nomads were very astonished and of course they were not able to write because they never visited a school. They started a conversation and about 6 months later these nomads brought a blind little boy from their region to the project. This small example shows how important it is for the children to know that they are valuable members in society. We want the students not to be embarrassed to be blind, they should see it as a sort of quality. One person has big feet, another hasred hair and some are blind. They should stand up in society and say, “I am blind, so what!?”.
In the Tibetan society it is believed that blindness is a punishment for something done wrong in a previous life. Because of a lot of media attention in the TAR the project is being visited by lots of Tibetan and Chinese people who are curious to see what is going on there. When they are confronted with happy children they wonder how it can be that these children are punished.  It is the staff who tells them that these children are not punished but they are challenged for their next life.The visitors seem to be very open for this idea and suddenly they see the blind with some more respect. 

students in front of Potala palace  

Initially BWB planned to train special fieldworkers to counsel the students on a regular base. In the beginning BWB received help from some Save the Children staff members who were visiting the school nearly every week anyway. However after a few months BWB noticed that the students were doing really well and that they integrated themselves into their class and school. BWB gave this some thought and realized that the process cannot be called RE-INTEGRATION since the children have never been integrated before. The process also cannot call it just INTEGRATION since what does that mean? If you put blind students in a regular elementary school does that mean they are integrated. What happens to them during the breaks? Do they have friends? How do the teachers treat them? What about the surrounding environment of the school? The trained blind students showed their surrounding what they are capable of, where they need help and where they are able to help the sighted children. BWB saw that they made a lot of friends but also met some competitors in class which shows that the integration is real and that the blind do not get a special treatment. BWB therefore came to the term “SELF-Integration” to describe the process. The children have a base of knowledge and most important enough self-confidence to be able to
integrate themselves into the school, daily society and also into a profession. Two students, Kyla and Digi, who followed the medical massage and physiotherapy training, graduated in November 2003 and in December they started their own clinic. Dorjee and Jampa, the twins start their own teahouse. BWB will be in touch with the self-integrated students on a regular base to supply the studentswith Braille schoolbooks, paper and other needed materials.

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