Sitting in the bright offices of Braille Without Borders, now in its seventh year, Tenberken leans forward and says, "Not accepting that I was blind was miserable. … I was constantly compensating and pretending." She pauses to think and with visible emotion adds, "Not until I accepted my blindness did I begin to live."
Tenberken enrolled at a boarding school for the blind, where among academic subjects the students were taught horseback riding, swimming, white-water rafting, braille, and, above all, self-reliance. "Suddenly, I was one among many," she tells me. "I had friends. I was equal and happy. … I thought, 'Okay. I may be ugly and blind, but I have a brain. I can do things.'"
Tenberken majored in central Asian studies at the University of Bonn, the only blind student out of 30,000. There, several professors tried to dissuade her from studying the difficult Tibetan language. There were no Tibetan texts available in braille. Using the system of rhythmic spelling Tibetans employ to memorize their complex language, Tenberken created her own method of translating the Tibetan language into braille. She compiled a Tibetan-German/German-Tibetan dictionary, and eventually, Tenberken helped to devise a software system that enabled her to transpose entire Tibetan texts into formally printed braille, a feat no one before had ever accomplished.
"I developed this system for my own use," she says, "but when I realized that blind people in Tibet could also benefit from it, I got the idea to bring it here and start a school." Rejected by several development organizations, who saw her blindness as too great a liability, Tenberken resolved to make the project happen on her own. In 1997, at the age of 26, much to the dismay of everyone but her immediate family, she traveled alone to China, took an intensive course in Chinese, then proceeded to Tibet, where she learned that more than 30,000 of Tibet's 2.6 million people are blind—about twice the global rate. While poor diet and unhygienic conditions are factors, Tibet's main cause of blindness is its high elevation; at this altitude the intensity of the sun's ultraviolet rays causes damage to the unprotected eye.
Phenomenal Woman: Sabriye Tenberken continues…
We Hear You!