As Boun Mao pecks out an e-mail to a friend, the computer chirps with each keystroke, announcing the letter—D…E… A…R….
He cannot see what he is writing. Where his eyes should be there is now a smooth layer of scar tissue, forever darkening his world. But with the special computer, Boun Mao can correspond with people around the world.
“You just saw the blind use e-mail,” he said as he finishes his message.
Of Cambodia’s estimated 70,000 blind people, Boun Mao is one of the fortunate few who has learned to navigate a culture built around sight. Others, he said, are not so lucky.
“The blind haven’t the right to join with society,” he said. “We are blind, but we are the same as other people in society.”
Boun Mao, 30, and a group of friends are hoping to change this through their newly formed Association of the Blind in Cambodia. There are two schools in Cambodia for the blind and a handful of NGOs that offer assistance to the blind, but the group is the first association devoted to the blind.
There are 28 members now, but the number is expected to swell when they have recruited in the provinces, where the vast majority of Cambodia’s blind live.
An 11-member steering committee elected in March is now writing a set of statutes for the association. When they are finished and accepted by the membership, the association will be formally registered with the Ministry of Interior, said Boun Mao, the group’s coordinator. Meanwhile, the World Blind Union is in the process of officially accepting Cambodia into the association.
From there, Boun Mao said, it will be a slow process of building membership, training and educating the blind and lobbying the government help the blind more.
“The right of the blind is not powerful yet,” he said.
Cambodia’s blind are a testament to the country’s history of war and poverty. Some blindnesses are the result of birth defects. But many others are caused by illnesses such as the measles, which could be treated in more developed countries.
And then there are the war injuries. Land mines alone have caused the blindness of hundreds of Cambodians.
“I saw a lot of young child soldiers blinded from mines,” said David Mead, a former Australian defense attache who is an adviser to the association. “Because demining was done with sticks and hands, you saw a lot of mine injuries to the face and hands.”
Acid stole Boun Mao’s sight.
In 1993, he was working as a motorcycle taxi driver, earning money for his university studies. That job, and the rest of the life he knew, ended early one morning as he drove a man through the city. His passenger hopped off the motorbike, supposedly to fetch money to pay Boun Mao. He returned with a container of acid, threw it in Boun Mao’s face and robbed him of his motorbike.
“It was hot all over my body, and I was shouting for someone to help me,” he said. Another motorbike driver took him to the Untac hospital to be treated by a German doctor.
“I told the doctor to just kill me because now I have lost everything,” Boun Mao said.
The doctor rebuffed Boun Mao, telling him he needed to learn to live with his blindness, that he needed to learn to read Braille, to learn English, to learn a skill to support himself.
Boun Mao was trained to be a masseuse at Seeing Hands, where he began working in 1994.
Last year he was sent to Thailand and was trained by a blind teacher to use the Internet, e-mail, word processing programs and databases. Before attending the class, Boun Mao did not know even how to type.
“I tried harder and harder every day and every night,” he said. “It was very hard, but now it is easy.”
The Overbrook School for the blind in the US state of Pennsylvania, which is helping to set up the Association of the Blind in Cambodia, bought the special computer equipment that enables Boun Mao to type. The computer can convert messages to Braille and read e-mails to the user.
By next year, the association hopes to be training the blind in Cambodia to use computers, providing opportunities for integration into society and better jobs.
For most of Cambodia’s blind—those in the countryside—the job training will be more practical than computers: agriculture, gardening and silk weaving.