At the age of three, Try Ratany lost her sight due to complications from a case of measles.
Born into a poor peasant family, it seemed that any hopes of a productive life were over before they even began. All of that changed for her at the age of ten, when an NGO enrolled her into a special programme which taught the Cambodian national curriculum to the blind.
Ratany told the Post that she was the fourth of five children in her family, who farmed in Kampong Russey Leu village of Koh Sotin district’s Kampong Reap commune in Kampong Cham province. Her mother was a homemaker, leaving her father as the sole breadwinner.
Her family was unable to afford special classes for her, so she had resigned herself to missing out on an education when Krousar Thmey – Khmer for new family – invited her to study at their Kampong Cham town school.
“Even though I was blind, I wanted to go to school. I wanted to be literate like my elder brothers. I was very happy when they invited me to study with them,” she said.
She explained that before starting the state curriculum, the students at the school had to master the Braille writing system. Braille uses a series of raised dots on paper to allow the blind to “read” with their fingertips. The school also enrolled deaf students, who were taught to communicate in sign language.
Ratany said that the blind and deaf students were able to act as one another’s eyes and ears and assist each other while they lived together at the organisation. Initially, even something as simple as walking to the bathroom required someone’s help, but once she learnt about the layout of the school and living spaces, she was more independent.
By the time she graduated from grade 12 in 2015, she was even preparing herself food.
After graduating from high school, she received a scholarship to Kampong Cham’s University of Management and Economics, where she studied English literature.
As the only blind student in her classes, she faced new difficulties. Her lecturers were talented instructors, but were trained to teach sighted students.
“I tried to follow the teachers, but most of the information they were presenting was written on a board or delivered via a power point presentation. In the end, I had to record everything that was said and transcribe it when I arrived home each night. Otherwise I would not have been able to keep up with the other students,” she said.
She added that she used a laptop equipped with special software to prepare her assignments, and took her exams in the classroom with her fellow students, albeit with the assistance of technology.
When it came to group projects, she was most often called upon to make suggestions, while someone else would write down the group’s ideas.
During her academic career, the cost of accommodation and food, along with travel expenses were a heavy burden on her family. She was fortunate that her tuition fees were paid by commander of the army Hun Manet, saying that she would likely have never graduated if her family’s meagre earnings from their farm had to cover the expense.
“If my father had a successful harvest, then I was able to attend school. Of course, if the harvest was poor one year, we all had to tighten our belts,” she said.
Despite her difficulties, Ratany received her Bachelor’s degree in September this year, and can write and speak fluent English.
She is now employed as an English teacher at a special education high school in Kampong Cham town, where she teaches around ten blind students.
She said that she had some difficulties transitioning from student to teacher, but the school provided access to plenty of additional training. It helps that she has a very accurate understanding of the challenges that her students face, having overcome them herself.
When it comes to her life outside the classroom, she uses voice recognition software and uses her smart phone just as often as a sighted person. She also regularly uses YouTube and Facebook to learn new things and communicate with her friends.