ABU Otsuki Award
"Providing a good education to blind students in your country -- Why and how?"
R.S.N. Karunaratne (39, female, Sri Lanka)
Photo: R.S.N.Karunaratne

Sri Lanka, being a developing country, is proud of its overall literacy rate of 92.5%. However, the same cannot be said of Braille literacy. According to the Ministry of Social Welfare (2003), 71% of vision impaired persons have had some sort of schooling. Of that, only 6% go beyond the G.C.E. Ordinary Level. Although this number does not necessarily represent the Braille literacy rate, it sheds light on the plight of Braille education. Why is it so important that vision impaired children be taught Braille? Simply because Braille literacy is the key to success in education and employment, ensuring the vision impaired person economic independence.
I myself being born with retinitis pigmentosa, attended a school for sighted children. Since I was in the grey area -- neither totally blind nor totally sighted (for I possessed some useful vision), they wanted me to join the sighted in order to evade the stigma attached to those who attend schools for the blind. I underwent many difficulties during my school years. Teachers had never encountered a child with my kind of disability and did not know how to handle the problem. Many just ignored me and I had to entirely rely on peers and my intelligence. The physical education period was my worst nightmare, on one hand because the instructress called me derogatory names and on the other hand, I could not engage in the activities and had to watch my friends have all the fun. The instructress made no attempt to include me in the activities. I never got the opportunity to learn Braille during my school years. None of my teachers knew Braille. They did not even direct me to any institution which taught it. It was as an adult that I acquired the skill to use Braille and what a difference it made. I no longer had to strain my eyes or rely on others to read for me. My story reveals the plight of vision impaired students who receive inclusive education. The situation has not changed much since then. I managed to complete tertiary education thanks to my perseverance and determination but where would a totally blind child be left in such a system of education?
Irrespective of the degree of disability, every vision impaired child has the right to education. It is the responsibility of the State to ensure that such children are able to exercise this right. Since the adoption of the Salamanca Statement in 1994, many blind students have entered mainstream schools. Yet, many who attend school never master Braille.
In my opinion, the existing structure of special education has failed to show the expected results not because it is not a good one but because it is not implemented properly. Early childhood intervention is essential. Braille must be introduced as early as possible to all vision impaired children even if they possess some useful vision. Through personal experience, I know that it is harder to acquire Braille literacy later in life.
Equity and equality of education can be brought about only if a quality learning environment is assured to vision impaired students. Unlike other students with special needs, these students can be easily mainstreamed provided that the teachers are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skill. The module on special education in pre-service and in-service training programmes have to be made more comprehensive. At the same time, teachers who have a vision impaired student in the class should be given the opportunity to undergo special training where he is trained to use Braille, assistive devices, special software etc. This could be done at the already existing Resource Centres at provincial level. The Special Education Officer attached to the Provincial Council together with the teachers of the blind student should develop special educational software so that the child's learning experience is made a more productive and exciting one. The Ministry of Education should see the importance of producing supplementary reading material in Braille.
The end product of education is a person with a well-rounded personality. Sports plays a vital role in this aspect. Activities which a blind student can do amongst non-disabled children are limited. Therefore, it is essential that the Provincial Resource Centres are made places where blind students of the area could get together for recreation. A trainer and special sport equipment should be made available at least twice a week. I for one who did not have the pleasure of participating in any sport during my school days, have certainly felt the void.
A good education must empower its students with knowledge, skills and attitudes to overcome the challenges of this Information Age we live in. Vision impaired students are no exception. Rather than providing the much needed information technology to the vision impaired students, Sri Lanka just as any other developing country, provides them with only a basic education. I do not underestimate the value of the stylus and slate to a blind person but when competing for a place in the open job market, competence in ICT is an added advantage. In the developed world, computers are used by vision impaired people for more than mere word processing activities. Computers are used effectively to enable a person with vision impairment to be independent in his educational, vocational, recreational and day-to-day activities, no matter which profession he or she chooses. The State must therefore, realise that there is a strong need for accessible and affordable ICT for blind people. It must encourage students of StateUniversities and other research institutions to get involved in the local production of software and hardware in order to avoid the high cost of importation. The time has come for vision impaired students to use computers as assistive technology.
As a teacher, it is my sincere wish that initiatives be taken expeditiously to make education for the vision impaired more productive.

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