Tenberken discovered a deep prejudice against the blind in Tibet, where blindness is considered punishment for misdeeds perpetrated in a past life. For centuries Tibet's blind have been shunned, vilified, and generally treated as subhuman. When Tenberken first arrived, she found not a single institution or organization geared to provide assistance for the region's blind—clearly a result of this deep-seated fear and opprobrium.

Tenberken decided to travel through remote areas of the countryside, visiting rural villages, spreading the word about her braille system, assessing the situation of blind children there. When she concluded that the best way to do this was on horseback, there were more howls of protest from the skeptics. Nevertheless she set off with three supportive companions, two of whom were Tibetan, riding from village to village, across high mountain passes, through flooded rivers. What she found appalled her: isolated, disrespected, sometimes beaten, abandoned, or turned out in the streets to beg, almost all were illiterate and uneducated. When villagers saw Tenberken walking, riding a horse, they refused at first to believe she was blind. Tenberken persuaded them that though blind, their children, too, could ride horses, read, and write. One astounded father told her, "The prospect of your school is like a dream for us."

At the moment, there are 37 students—ranging in age from 3 to 19—in residence at the school, as well as six trained teachers and five staff members, but new students arrive regularly. I ask Tenberken how the school survives without charging tuition or boarding fees. At the mention of finances, she smiles ruefully. "It costs about $2,000 per month to run the project. It's not a lot, but by the end of this year we may find we're out of funds."

Tenberken, who used $20,000 of her own money to start the school, spends a great deal of time applying for grants, making speeches, and traveling to raise funds from private individuals. Though the project has gained international renown and the school receives close to 5,000 curious visitors a year, donations are often not forthcoming. Tenberken drops her cane on the ground by her feet, tucks her hands between her knees, lifts her face to the sky. "The main reason people don't give us money is that we don't raise funds with pity." She believes that presenting her students as pitiable simply furthers the prejudice against them. "We've learned that you'll get funding if people feel sorry for you, but the perception of your capabilities will never change."

Phenomenal Woman: Sabriye Tenberken continues…


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