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Sabriye Tenberken: A blind woman with a vision

March 12, 2010

Sabriye Tenberken recently visited Deutsche Welle to talk about her latest project for blind and partially-sighted people: the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in the Indian state of Kerala.

Sabriye Tenberken, the founder of Braille without Borders, climbing in the Himalayas
Sabriye Tenberken, the founder of Braille without Borders, climbing in the HimalayasImage: blindsightthemovie

In 1998, a blind woman took an alternative route to "free Tibet". Sabriye Tenberken introduced reading and writing to Tibet's visually impaired, taking on societal myths and embracing the outcasts. Her philosophy was to see blindness as an opportunity instead of a handicap.

Tenberken at a school that she set up in Tibet for the blind
Tenberken at a school that she set up in Tibet for the blindImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Braille without Borders is the name of the school she and Paul Kronenberg set up in Tibet for blind children over 10 years ago. They have since helped many blind people, once shunned by society, embrace life’s opportunities, said Paul Kronenberg.

"Braille Without Borders is an organization that tries to empower blind and partially-sighted people worldwide. We have a preparatory school for blind children, a vocational training program, where blind people are trained in different vocations such as animal husbandry, agriculture, and gardening; we have a cheese factory, a compost factory, lots of different vocations. There is a Braille book printing press and an integration project."

Inspired to create Tibetan Braille system

Before Tenberken went to Lhasa, there was no Braille system for the Tibetan language. After studying Tibetology at Germany's Bonn University, Sabriye Temberken was inspired to create the system that is now used to educate blind people in Tibet.

"I learned the Tibetan writing system through a little machine which is called Opticon," she explained. “It’s a camera you push over a piece of paper and everything that is black and white is transferred into impulses. I could read the actual letters with my hands.

"But I had to create this Braille system in order to be able to read wherever I wanted to, without the machine, so I created a system that is based on the six-dot Braille system and constructed with the general rules of the Tibetan syllable script and it is a script that is one-to-one translatable and later it became the official Braille script for the Tibetan language."

From outcasts to self-confident members of society

In her interview at Deutsche Welle, Tenberken made it seem as if her endeavors to change society’s view of blind people were an effortless undertaking.

Tibetologist Sabriye Tenberken in a DW studio
Tibetologist Sabriye Tenberken in a DW studioImage: DW/ Matthias Müller

"When I first came to Tibet, blind people were outcast. They were not taken seriously in society. In fact, people thought blind people were possessed by demons. I met parents that didn’t want to touch their own children.

"I think nowadays that the picture has changed. People see blind people running around with their white canes in Lhasa city but also in Shigatse city. They see them being very full of confidence. They are very educated and they are capable of contributing in a meaningful way to society."

Tenberken has received numerous awards, including the Mother Teresa Award and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

An avid lover of horseback riding and a Himalayan mountaineer, Tenberken is proof that having a vision has nothing to do with eyesight. But, she said, though there are some who would disagree, she would rather leave one thing to people who can see – operating motor vehicles.

Author: Sarah Berning
Editor: Anne Thomas

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