First-grade teacher Chabmeng Leng dealt with many of the common issues associated with the start of the new academic year on Oct 1. But as the teacher of 14 blind students, she also had additional challenges.
“It is very difficult to be a teacher, ,but the blind have a difficult life,” said Mrs Leng, who has spent 15 years teaching at the Krousar Thmey organization’s school for blind and deaf children in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district.
When her 14 young students arrived in class, Mrs Leng’s first duty was to start teaching them to read and write using Khmer-language Braille, which is composed of 10 dot patterns that are arranged to create different formations for all of the characters in the Khmer alphabet.
The students were shown how to use two pieces of plastic containing patterned depressions that form the words, and with a stylus, a tool used to make small indentions into paper, they were shown how to write words in Braille.
In the room above Ms Leng’s first-grade classroom yesterday, the clicks of slates and Braille styluses could be heard from sixth-graders as they copied their schedules, while older students practiced traditional instruments in another classroom.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the blind inventor of the raised-dot system that allows the blind to read through touch.
Krousar Thmey developed the Khmer Braille system in 1994 and currently has 400 blind students in four schools that also cater to deaf students in Phnom Penh, Kompong Cham and Siem Reap, said the organization’s communication officer, Francois-Xavier Autric.
The organization, created in 1991 at the Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border to aid orphans, uses a computer program to translate every school textbook issued by the Ministry of Education into Braille for the 400 students at their schools and for the few students who continue on to university level.
Currently, there are eight blind students at universities in Cambodia, with 2006 being the first year that Cambodian blind students passed the national high school examinations.
Former Krousar Thmey student Seoun Sreyneth, 22, who has been blind since birth, returned to work with the organization this year as a teacher.
“I want to be a teacher because before I was a student and now I need to help the blind like me to have knowledge,” she said, speaking in fluent English.
As a blind teacher, Ms Sreyneth said her biggest challenge is controlling her mischievous young pupils.
“If they are playing around or misbehaving, it is difficult for me to see that,” she said.
Ms Sreyneth spent 10 years at Krousar Thmey where she said her favorite subjects were Khmer and English literature and mathematics, although the latter was tough to study because diagrams in textbooks for math and scientific subjects cannot be translated into Braille and must be explained by an instructor.
“I could learn everything like a normal student,” she said of the advantages of mastering Braille.
The main cause of blindness in Cambodian children is corneal scars, which are caused by infections from a lack of vitamin A, said Dr Do Seiha, coordinator for the National Program for Eye Health at the Ministry of Health.
Dr Seiha said that lack of nutrition was a larger problem in the past and new cases of childhood blindness are more commonly caused by congenital and genetic problems.
According to The Fred Hollows Foundation, an international organization focused on eye health and that is present in 38 countries, there are more than 166,000 blind people in the Cambodia. Sith Sam Ath, country director of the foundation, said the organization compiles statistics every year and also collaborates with other NGOs to spread awareness about blindness and available medical treatments.
Dr Seiha said blindness can occur in adults also, as cataracts are a common problem for people 55 years and older. This has caused the number of new blindness cases to rise in Cambodia, but the overall percentage of blind people in the population has dropped from around 1 percent to .38 percent, he added.
“With aging, it is normal…. You cannot avoid cataracts,” he said, but added that surgery can be conducted and a sufferer’s eyesight will improve.
Cataract surgery is a relatively easy procedure that can restore sight, Dr Seiha said, adding that only around 12,000 such operations are performed every year in 16 of the country’s 24 provinces and municipalities, when 40,000 operations are actually needed to handle all the new cases.
A lack of resources prevents more surgeries being performed, he said.
“In general, all activities come from NGOs, the government provides very little funds, as blindness control is a very low priority,” he said.
Buon Mao, director of the Association of the Blind in Cambodia, also said government support is lacking, but has improved over time.
In addition to a lack of resources, Mr Mao said the blind also have to deal with isolation from society and stigma. “In the past, people thought [the blind] could not do anything, that they had no skills,” he said.
Now the blind are proving their capabilities, most noticeably in the field of massage, Mr Mao said. He added that massage allows the blind to generate their own income and customers treat the masseuses as equals, which is not always the case in general society.
Mr Mao said that in general the situation for blind people in Cambodia is improving as time passes, thanks to more resources, including Khmer Braille.
“It’s good,” he said of the unique system of reading and writing. “Literacy for blind children will create equal opportunities.”