She was just 26 years old and blind when she rode into Tibet (on horseback, no less!) to found a school where blind children could learn to read braille, speak three languages, take care of themselves, teach each other, and put a joyous new spin on the idea of the blind leading the blind.

Rosemary Mahoney listens and learns from—and tries to keep pace with—the spectacular Sabriye Tenberken.
Sabriye Tenberken walks fast and with authority. As we stride up a narrow street, a little girl sitting on a stoop spots Tenberken through the crowd, springs to her feet, and crows at the top of her lungs, "Xia ze lai le!" A simple Chinese sentence, it means, "Gangway! Here comes an idiot!"

In the seven years Sabriye's spent living in Tibet—and indeed in the 27 in her native Germany before that—she's been the object of this phrase, and worse, countless times. Sabriye Tenberken (pronounced Sah-bree-yah Ten-BURR-ken) single-handedly has brought literacy to the blind people of Tibet. In founding the Lhasa-based Braille Without Borders*, the region's first rehabilitation and training center for the blind, she has inspired nothing short of a revolution in their status, their thinking, their future. She and her partner in life, Paul Kronenberg, who handles much of the practical work of the school, have been knighted by the Dutch queen. She has also won numerous honors and awards for her work. She is hardly an idiot. "You cannot insult me with blindness," she says, "because I'm proud to be blind." These days epithets leave her unfazed; they didn't always.

Born with a degenerative retinal disease, Tenberken was blind by 12. In her early years, she was able to make out faces, colors, landscapes, but her vision was highly impaired, and as a result her schoolteachers approached her with what she felt was a patronizing deference that set her apart. Her classmates spurned and taunted her. Determined to fit in, Tenberken denied her blindness to herself and worked overtime to hide it.

Phenomenal Woman: Sabriye Tenberken continues…



Next Story