Braille without borders the right to be blind without being disable

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My paths leads to Tibet
by Sabriye Tenberken

Sabriye Tenberken & Paul Kronenberg interview

- What/who is BWB

- Theatre play "What A Beautiful Sight"

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Dear reader,
welcome to the website of Braille Without Borders.

Per WHO statistics, 161 million persons live with a disabling visual impairment, of whom 37 million are blind and 124 million are persons with low vision. Every 5 seconds someone becomes blind, every minute somewhere a child goes blind. About 90% of them live in developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Regions. 9 out of 10 blind children in developing countries have no access to education.

Braille Without Borders wants to empower blind people from these countries so they themselves can set up projects and schools for other blind people. In this way the concept can be spread across the globe so more blind and visually impaired people have access to education and a better future.               

To realize these plans we need your support. How to support

Thank you very much! 

Sabriye Tenberken
Paul Kronenberg 


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.
On the same trip she met with Paul Kronenberg, a Dutch engineer. She told him about her plans to set up her project. He told her to call him when she was going back to Tibet. 9 Months later Sabriye called Paul in Holland to say goodbye. Paul decided to join her and quit his job the next day. Five days later they both sat in a plane to start the present project.

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 of some of our former students:

Tenzin is mow 18 years old. He comes from a little village within the Lhasa district. His parents are divorced, and he lived with his mother and his little brother. Tenzin belongs to the few blind children who were reasonably well integrated in his village. He had 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 when he was 8 years old. 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 schoo which he did in the summer of 1998. Tenzin is very social and intelligent, 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 wanted to study and become a masseur. He started medical massage/physiotherapy training in 2001. Now in 2008 he, together with some other blind friends who were trained at the BWB centre as well, runs their own medical massage clinic.

Norbu is 17 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. As a kid Norbu was very playful and liked bal games or just to run around. He learned fast and made friends  with other children very easily. Norbu was trained in making cheese and is now working as a trainer in the cheese factory which is located in the Braille Without Borders vocational training farm in Shigatse.

Yudon is 19 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 wanted to become a teacher. After graduating the BWB centre she together with 3 other blind students was the first to enter the regular schoolsystem.  Now she is teaching at the BWB preparatory school in Lhasa.

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.
  • Teachers have been trained (initially by Sabriye Tenberken) to teach the children Tibetan, Chinese and English Braille systems, and in addition they also teach mathematics Braille, mobility, orientation and daily living skills and computerskills for the blind.
  • In autumn 2000 two blind massage trainers started the massage and physiotherapy-training with two students.
  • One blind 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 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 gain enough self-confidence to cope with daily life independently. The preparatory school for the Blind provides classes and housing for children aged between 5 and 15.  The training for the students lasts for one to two years. 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 are also taught in basic colloquial Chinese and English language skills. All students who attend a regular school after a one or two year's training use 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  integrate themselves 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)
  • Compost production: Students are being trained how to make compost.
  • 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 is 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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