Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Amazing People in EFL No.1

Ever wondered who is the most amazing person in EFL?

Well, we can tell you.

She is Sabriye Tenberken. Now, we don't generally pay much attention to Oprah Winfrey, but when Oprah declared Sabriye to be one of the world's "phenomenal females" we had to agree.
Born in Germany, she had a degenerative retinal disease that left her blind by the age of 12. A major setback, but one she overcame with the thought she expresses like this: "Okay, I may be ugly and blind but I have a brain. I can do things." With the assistance of what sounds like a very good boarding school for the blind she succeeded in getting a place at the University of Bonn, where she was the only blind student out of 30,000. Perhaps thinking that a little extra challenge might not be such a bad thing, at university she decided to study Tibetan even though there was no braille transcription of the language. She developed the first system for transposing Tibetan texts into printed braille.

Having completed her studies she thought it might be a good idea to travel - alone - on horseback - across Tibet, where the blind are ridiculed in the streets as people shout: "Watch out! Here comes an idiot" and where blindness is seen as a punishment for terrible sins commited in past lives.

It was in Tibet that she found out the appalling circumstances of many of the country's 30,000 blind people - severely discriminated against and denied the most basic education. So she decided to set up the first school for the blind in Tibet a boarding school - using her own money to get the project going. One of the aims is to change perceptions of the blind in Tibet and raise their status. As she puts it: "I believe that changes in the community's perception of the blind should radiate from the blind themselves. When our children return to their villages, they know many new things their own families have never learned. In many villages, the families don't speak Chinese or English; the returning blind child is able to translate for them. He returns with a new value; for the first time he's seen as useful."

Apparently, there was tremendous resistance to the idea of a blind woman setting up a school for the blind in Tibet. "In the beginning it was horrible," she says. "But the obstacles made us stronger. People tried to put limits on me, but limits always show opportunities. I persisted because I believed it was possible."

The best insight into the woman and her work in Tibet is from the documentary "Blindsight" which follows her expedition with some of her blind students to one of the lower peaks of Everest. An amazing film. It also includes some of the English the children have learnt at the school, and to hear the little Tibetan boy with unseeing eyes singing with such enthusiastic innocence: "Me and you, and you and me ... so happy to-ge-therrr" is a devastating piece of footage.

Sabriye has written a book: "My Path Leads to Tibet" which might be excellent in its original German but the English translation is unfortuately bad. Sabriye has her own characteristic and powerful voice in English which the stuffy translation has missed. Nothing compares to hearing her voice on the film.

The project she has set up, Braille Without Borders, also has its own website, but when I last looked I couldn't find any interesting biographical or personal accounts from the woman who obviously prefers to keep a low profile and let her work speak for itself.

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