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Blind leading blind in Khmer Braille school

T WENTY-SIX children and adults are among the first students to study Khmer Braille.

The School for Blind Children at Chbar Ampou off Route 1 in Kandal province took in its first class of 18 students, aged from five to 15, in September.

Earlier, in July, eight adults began learning Khmer Braille at Maryknoll, a Catholic NGO on Street 178 in Phnom Penh.

Before the classes began blind Cambodians had no opportunity to learn to read in this country.

Vanna, a 12-year-old orphan, who is one of the students at the school, is a returnee from the Thai border camp Site 2. He said: "I never learned anything there but now I have a real teacher who is able to teach me something."

He explained that teachers in Site 2 ignored him saying: "He is blind, what can I do."

It was at Site 2 that Khmer Braille was created. One of the founders is Neang Phalla, who has gone on to be director of the school. She works for the French-run NGO Krousar Thmey, which founded the school.

She said: "The school gives the children a sense of dignity and shows their families that they are not stupid and that they can do most things by themselves.

"For example, Vanna wants to learn about music. He now laughs a lot and feels like a normal kid."

Phalla added that many Khmer villagers mistakenly link blindness with mental illness.

While Phalla has good eyesight, two of the three other teachers in the school are themselves blind. One of the blind teachers Sar Phan lost a leg as well as his sight in a mine blast ten years ago when he was a villagers in the northwest. He was a test case student for the founders of Khmer Braille in Site 2. The system is an adaptation of the Thai version.

Sar Phan, who constantly wears a sunny smile, said: "I am pleased to have an activity to help people, to be useful to them and to keep me occupied."

The school has three classrooms and a music room with a total capacity for 30 students.

Krousar Thmey founder, Benoit Duchateau, says the school is just a small start at tackling a big problem. He is limited by a lack of funds. The NGO relies on private donations from France and grants by Unicef and Rotary International.

All the students come from Kandal province and were recruited by the teachers inquiring around villages and asking permission from parents for their children to attend.

A pick-up truck makes a two-and-a-half hour province tour each morning and afternoon to pick up and drop off the children.

Duchateau has just taken delivery of a $3,000 Braille printer. He intends to link it to a computer and using a specially adapted program, sighted Cambodians will be able to type Khmer and produce the first Khmer Braille books and literature.

He added: "We will soon be able to create a real library for the Khmer blind. These people will have the same access to books as any other."

Of course it will be some years before there are many blind people who are able to read Khmer Braille but dedicated teachers such as Sar Phan are helping move things in that direction.

As a conclusion, Phalla said: "Their happiness is obvious. during the holidays, the children didn't even want to stay at home!"



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