Tenberken says that when students first arrive at the school, they often object to being asked to learn and participate in school tasks. "They say, ‘I'm blind! I can't do that.' But when they see the other kids working hard, they change their views." The students are helping each other, not passively waiting to be told what to do.
Tenberken smiles. "That's always been my hope. I've never liked the word help in the sense of the Samaritan. I never wanted just to come here as a Western person and help the blind by telling them what to do. I learn from them. We combine our experiences. I am one of them, and it's their project as much as it is mine." Tenberken aims to teach the blind how to integrate themselves into their communities, how to educate the sighted in what it means to be blind. "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."
I ask Tenberken if students ever object to returning to their villages. "That happens," she says. "And sighted people always say to me, ‘You see? You alienated them from their world.' Believe me, I've thought about this a lot. But this isn't alienation. It's simply life." Upon completing their preliminary education at BWB, students can opt to return to their villages, attend a normal school with sighted children, or train for a vocation such as medical massage, animal husbandry, cheesemaking, or farming. Tenberken's ultimate goal is to establish an international training center in Kerala, India, where blind people from all over the developing world can learn the management skills necessary to establish their own schools and training centers for the blind.
Though highly self-confident, Tenberken admits that the task of setting BWB on its feet was the hardest thing she's ever done. The bureaucratic resistance from government authorities, the difficulty of raising funds, the doubts of people who objected to her ideas, were nearly overwhelming. "In the beginning it was horrible. 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."
We Hear You!