The Braille Monitor November, 2003
A German Voyager's Bold Vision for Tibet's Blind
by Jim Yardley
From the Editor: The following story appeared in the September 20, 2003, edition of the New York Times. Whenever I read anything about Sabriye Tenberken's work with the blind children of Tibet, I am reminded of the lyrics of the song, "High Hopes," all about an ant who succeeded in moving a rubber tree plant. No one thought it could be done because of the overwhelming size of the problem, but the ant was not discouraged, and neither was Ms. Tenberken. Her life and work are a reminder that remarkable things can be done by those who refuse to take no for an answer. Her attitudes and teaching techniques will seem familiar to those acquainted with the methods and philosophy of NFB training centers. Here is the story:
Upon arriving in Tibet, Sabriye Tenberken decided to tour the countryside, not from the comfort of a car, but atop the hard saddle of a horse. It was a chancy decision, not only because the rugged Tibetan landscape can be unforgiving and treacherous, but also because Ms. Tenberken is blind.
She thought the horse was perfect. She knew that blindness carried a terrible stigma in many parts of Tibet, and she had been told that many blind children were living in isolated, rural villages. She had started riding as a child in her native Germany, one of many lessons in self-reliance, and she wanted to instill a similar sense of independence in Tibetan blind children. So she saddled a horse and, with three other people, began riding.
She was less prepared for what she and her traveling companions discovered. "It was quite depressing," she recalled. "We met blind children who were four or five years old and looked like infants. They hadn't learned to walk because their parents hadn't taught them."
The memories are still fresh six years later, though now Ms. Tenberken is seated in a bright second-floor sitting room above the school she has founded for blind Tibetan children in the land she has adopted.
Her partner, both personally and professionally, Paul Kronenberg, is working on a computer in the next room, as voices of children drift through an open window from a courtyard below. The children are practicing a play written by one of them.
In a Himalayan region known as "the roof of the world," where high-altitude sun exposure contributes to unusually high rates of eye disease, Ms. Tenberken and Mr. Kronenberg, who is sighted, now run Braille Without Borders, a program for blind children in Tibet.
She created the first Tibetan Braille system, which she is now teaching to her students, and her memoir about Tibet, now available in the United States, was popular in Germany.
Nor is Ms. Tenberken, thirty-three, finished. In coming months she and Mr. Kronenberg plan to open a second Braille Without Borders program in northern India, a first step in their goal of expanding their work to other developing countries. Mr. Kronenberg, an engineer by training, is also trying to develop a lighter, less expensive Braille machine.
Tall, with straight, sandy brown hair, Ms. Tenberken still remembers the skepticism she faced when she presented her plans to local officials in Tibet. She had first tried to get a job with different international aid groups, but she says she was told that blind people were prohibited from doing field work.
So she decided to start her own organization. Everyone, she remembered, thought she was crazy. "They couldn't imagine I could come to Tibet," she recalled. "They said, `It's not possible. She's blind; who can take care of her; who can take her around?'"
The chaotic streets of the old Tibetan quarter near the Jokhang Monastery present a disconcerting mess for sighted people, yet Ms. Tenberken navigates them herself and expects her students to learn to do the same. Her own childhood was filled with such challenges.
Ms. Tenberken was raised in Bonn. Her father was a pianist, and her mother directed children's theater. Her brother is now an artist, prompting her to observe lightly that she came from an artistic family.
"I'm the only one who is a little bit practical," she said. She learned about independence from her mother, who as a student in Turkey during the 1960's dressed as a man on research trips because women were forbidden to travel. In Turkey her mother also chose the name "Sabriye," which means "patience" and "small hedgehog."
When Ms. Tenberken was only two, her parents learned that she would gradually lose her sight. They did not tell her about her condition, and by age thirteen she was blind. Her parents, though, had spent the intervening years filling her life with images. They took her to museums, traveled extensively, and filled her eyes with colors. "I have all my visual images in my head," she said.
She says she agrees with her parents' decision to keep secret her impending blindness, because knowing might have terrified her. But not knowing did make her condition baffling. She kept banging into things without knowing why.
She finally put a name to her problem when she met another young girl who was blind. "It was a relief because suddenly I had a word for something that wasn't functioning as well as others were functioning," she said.
Her parents encouraged her to discover her own boundaries as a blind person, a philosophy reinforced when she attended a leading German high school for the blind. She learned to ride horses, ski downhill and cross-country, and kayak in white water. "They showed us the teaching and methods and said, `Okay, you have to do something,'" she recalled. "The whole world was open to us if we knew the techniques and methods."
She has adopted a similar philosophy for teaching her twenty-nine Tibetan students, ages four to twenty-one. In August the group went white-water rafting, and they plan to climb a nearby Himalayan peak next year. The program emphasizes living skills like cooking, hygiene, and self-reliance, yet it also teaches workplace skills like computer use and Tibetan, Chinese, and English. Training is also offered in careers like massage therapy and music.
Ms. Tenberken's interest in Tibet took hold at Bonn University, where she decided to major in Tibetology. She was the only blind student in the program, and Tibetan had not been translated into Braille. So she did it herself. Her first trip to Tibet, in 1994, ended quickly. She came down with altitude sickness and had to fly home.
Undeterred, she returned for good in 1998, starting her school with one teacher and six students. They were quickly evicted from their first building for lack of money.
Financing remains a juggling act. The monthly budget for the entire program is $1,900. Proceeds from her memoir, My Path Leads to Tibet, helped buy the current building, while donations have come from people in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
She has set up a Web site called <braillewithoutborders.org>.
Finishing her cup of coffee, Ms. Tenberken offers a tour of the school while the students practice their play. The playwright, Kyila, seventeen, who once lived in a small village in northern Tibet, could not read or write when she came to the school a few years ago. Now she is making plans to become a massage therapist, while her twin brothers, both blind, want to open a teahouse.
Soon four other students will leave the program to enter a regular Tibetan school, the first to make that transition. "The kids ask us every day, `When do we go?'" she said.
Her own future will remain busy, with planning for more programs in more countries. She and Mr. Kronenberg hope one day to open a training center, possibly in southern India, where they could train others in starting up their own programs for the blind. The main goal remains instilling self-confidence and self-esteem so that blind children will "not be embarrassed anymore."
A blind child, she notes, will never be able to drive a truck. "But they can read and write in the dark," she said. "And who can do that?"