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Hope At The Top of The World

Editor's Note: Margot Brunner-Campbell lives in Alberta and has worked as a student service provider and academic advisor for 15 years at Grande Prairie Regional College. She is currently the president of the Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities.

It is estimated that Tibet has 33,507 blind people, including 6,096 children, so the day I arrived in Lhasa there was one more vision-impaired person; I had something in common with others. The one thing I did not have in common was that there were a million dark-skinned Tibetans, and as far as I could tell for the length of time I was there, I was the only Albino. I did not inquire about the rate of albinism in this somewhat homogenous population, but the rate among Canadians is approximately 0.005 percent. There are 2.5 million Tibetans and between a half and one million Chinese people in Tibet, and I may have seen a percentage of the people or, at best, they saw me. Many wanted to touch me and so they did.

Out of a population of 2.5 million, the official figure for the number of blind in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is 10,000 which, compared with most regions in the world, is extremely high. This phenomenon is caused by extreme altitude, poor hygiene (dust, wind, high ultraviolet rays, soot in houses and temples from burning coal and yak dung), lack of vitamin A, and ultimately the inadequate medical care in remote areas.

Blind children in much of Tibet currently have no access to education. Like many people with disabilities, they live on the margin of society and only in rare instances do they experience any amount of integration. I found a school and vocational setting for the blind in Lhasa, and when I purchased a date calendar and some other souvenirs from an English-friendly hotel, on the back was a public service announcement to say that the proceeds go to the "Braille with Borders" organization. I asked students if they were familiar with this place and got a resounding affirmation that it was well known.

In the summer of 1997 Sabriye Tenberken, a student of Tibetology at Bonn University, travelled within the TAR to investigate the possibility of providing training for Tibetan blind and vision-impaired people. Sabriye, who is blind herself, became interested in the lack of programs educating and rehabilitating blind people within the TAR. She took the initiative to found a project to include a school for the blind to begin with, and later vocational programs as success seemed inevitable.

In mainland China, massage is a popular profession for blind people so Sabriye founded Tibetan and Chinese traditional medical massage, medicine, nursery, pulse diagnosis and acupressure. There are areas for training in handicrafts: knitting, carpentry, weaving, pottery and basket making. It is essential that all Tibetans learn the Chinese language, as it is all but impossible to get a job if Chinese is not the second language.

My primary purpose in this exotic country was to teach English to Middle School teachers. Much to my delight, many were already language-proficient so I changed my direction and taught Curriculum Instruction and Methodology, keeping in mind that I was watched closely and my philosophies may not correspond exactly with the Han Chinese, who were the majority in my classroom.

Conditions in Tibet are pioneer by nature, and this makes mobility awkward but exciting. I found myself in the majority by not being able to drive, but deciphering the public transportation system happens very quickly. The non-teaching time was spent in teahouses and temples, a monastery and a teaching gig at the Mountain Guide School on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

The joy of this trip was my total integration. Except for some of the sidewalk travel, Tibet is accessible because I cannot read Tibetan or Chinese; the playing field is level with other tourists. I highly recommend this trip for those who are not mobility-impaired; it's not physically accessible.

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