#316 Blind, not disabled

Retinal disease gradually stole Sabriye Tenberken’s sight, but it did not make the German woman disabled. Though she was completely blind by the time she was 13, she went on to study Mongolian, modern Chinese, Tibetan, sociology and philosophy.

In 1992, at the age of 22, she developed a Braille-type script for blind Tibetans. Then in 1997 she traveled to Tibet to find out for herself what it was like for blind people there. The following year she teamed up with a Dutch engineer, Paul Kronenberg, and founded the Rehabilitation and Training Centre for the Blind in Lhasa. It was the first school for blind Tibetans.

What started as Project for the Blind, Tibet became Braille Without Borders (BWB) in 2002. The slogan below the organization’s name sums up the work beautifully: “The right to be blind without being disabled.”

Now BWB’s operation in Tibet includes a preparatory school for the blind, vocational / skills training, a workshop that produces educational materials, and a self-integration project that gives students a sense of self worth.

BWB in India started as the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs. Three years later they adopted the name “kanthari”. That “small but powerful chili” is now a symbol for  “provocative thinkers and driven doers” – the Kanthari graduates who are taking on the roles of change agents around the world. Gabrielle Levene’s short film is an inspiring tribute to the vision behind an center where people from around the globe can gain the skills they need to turn their dreams into realities.

At Kanthari they are viewed as visionaries and thinkers, not as people limited by disabilities or any adversity they may have faced. Graduates are people like the three featured in Kanthari’s brochure: Kyila (see bottom video below), who started KiKi’s Kindergarten, Tibet’s first inclusive kindergarten; Yoshimi Horiuchi who runs Always Reading Caravan, bringing mobile library services to rural Thailand, and Khom Raj Sharma, who founded the Inclusion Empowerment Center in Nepal.

The first video below was shot in BWB Tibet and shows two beautiful young girls performing a song with lines like these:

We do not seek your pity…
All we want is dignity…
Please don’t treat us differently
We’re just the same as you.

The second film was made by Global Roots and introduces Kyila, whose kindergarten is giving blind children the kind of normal, joyous childhood that will allow them to flourish.


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Lucy Mathews Heegaard - June 1, 2012

Another wonderful story, Cathryn! Your blog is a great place to start my day. Coincidentally, I just learned of Sabriye Tenberken last week by stumbling upon a documentary called Blindsight, which follows a climbing expedition that Sabriye and a small group of kids from her school took with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mount Everest. I loved the synchronicity of running into her work here on your blog and learning more about her accomplishments.

    admin - June 1, 2012

    Thanks so much, Lucy. I’m going to see if I can get hold of Blindsight. What an incredible adventure! I’ve watched Sabriye Tenberken speak on several videos and am so inspired by her.

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