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Copyright © 1998-2013  Vietnam Venture Group, Inc. All rights reserved.   March 1,  2004

FROM MY HEART: Should Blind Students Learn At Schools With Sighted Ones?

By Dang Hoai Phuc


For many years, most people in Vietnam who care about blindness have said that the blind should go to schools for the sighted. They assume that this is a good way to make the blind and the sighted integrate and understand each other.  

It seems to be their well-intentioned belief that by going to school with the sighted, the blind can easily erase stereotype inferiority complexes and learn better how to live on their own in a sighted world. These well-intentioned, sighted and blind people believe that in this way they can eliminate the social distance between the blind and the sighted.

But this is still in an open and a large question that needs more exposure and discussion.  What is the best way for the blind, who have different educational needs than the sighted, to get the best results from school and also integrate with the sighted in a way to allow the blind to achieve the best possible jobs and employment in the sighted world? 

There is at the start a need for the blind to overcome disadvantages when going to school with the sighted, such as transportation, teaching materials and lesson comprehension.  We must first assess the challenges the blind face when compared to the sighted.   We must understand how the simple act of going to school and returning home, even if it just means crossing a busy Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City street, is not a simple task.  Without sighted assistance, for a blind student needing to travel greater distances than just crossing a street can become an hour-long chore filled with apprehension and danger.  In this simple comparison, the blind will always come up short when measured against the sighted.

Most sighted students in high school and beyond go to and from school by their own vehicles such as bicycle and motorbike. While some sighted students have the use of public transportation, a blind student depends on a family member, a neighbor, or public transportation.  Particularly when there is no family member or friendly neighbor with time to spare, the blind face yet another serious problem: the need for money to travel by bus, mini-bus, or taxi-motorbike. The study of the transportation needs of just one blind student can be instructional.  It is typical of all bind students.  

The young blind man for this report is a student at the college of Social Science in Ho Chi Minh City.  The trip from his home to school is several kilometers long. The cost for the return trip each day by public transportation is nearly twenty thousand VND (US$1.38).  This amount of money, over the course a full year, approaches the total sum of an average Vietnamese worker’s annual income.  It is also far more money than then this student has or his family could raise.  Unable to go on his own to class, the blind university student is compelled to ask his friends to take him.   

This would not be necessary if the schools of Vietnam were especially designed for the blind and not the sighted.  However, under the current system, a blind student must either impose upon his friends or give-up his university education.  Consider as well those blind students who are not as lucky as this one young man.  Consider those who do not have transportation money or friends to take them to school, and return them home every day? 

Of course the blind have a daily effort to go anywhere in the sighted world, such as walking on crowded and cratered sidewalks filled with people, tables, stools, and vending carts, or the challenge in finding the correct bus, hailing a motorbike taxi, or dealing with the crooked driver who takes more money than he should, wrongly thinking the blind are unaware of the correct fare or the value of the bills as well.  However, as this is taken for the moment as normal in the sighted world, addressed here are only the considerations of study by the blind.

There are some advantages gained from the transportation experience of the Social Science student reported on here. He is able to meet and speak often with his sighted friends who drive him. As a result, they get to know each other quite well.  Some of them have even become very close friends. Therefore while the transportation of blind students is a problem making the blind dependent upon the sighted, it does provide a chance for interaction and friendship.  The question up for consideration is if the possibility of expanded friendship is worth the cost of making the blind more dependent on the sighted and not more independent?

Similar in some ways to the challenges faced in transportation problems, the issue of materials for the blind is yet an even larger challenge to overcome. The need for Braille materials is not currently met in sighted schools.  In Vietnam, there are no books transcribed in Braille for the blind who want to study beyond the 10th grade level. Students who wish to graduate high school and university must ask the sighted to read all of their textbooks and all of their daily lessons, every day of the school year.  The blind must listen carefully and using their writing-boards or (for the fortunate few) a computer, then transcribe the lessons either directly into Braille or first into an electronic format and later Braille.  Another method available for the blind in some Vietnamese subjects such as literature, psychology, and economics, is for the sighted to read and record the texts and daily lessons onto audiotapes.

This is very helpful as the blind can then learn by listening to their cassette players. However, this is not possible in more complex courses such as math, chemistry, physics and some science subjects.  And if the blind cannot find a student willing to take the extra time to record or read the daily lessons, this is also then not possible. 

Now consider the sighted.  With many bookshops and libraries all over the major and even smaller cities throughout Vietnam in which they can find very easily any material they want, the sighted can read for free and buy the books they need to concentrate on. Then, on their own and at any time they desire, the sighted can read and study as time permits.  

Time is yet another factor to be considered.  All students have a limited amount of time in which to read and prepare their lessons. The time for all students to prepare a lesson is very short, rarely more than a day or two.  In a school for the sighted, the blind are not given extra time to prepare their lessons, even if they were to ask for it.  It is a certainty that the blind do need extra time.

There is no extra time given to the blind for the lengthy and difficult process of transcribing a lesson into Braille.  If a blind student has a very good helper, the sighted helper will arrange his or her schedule to allow the two to meet on a regular time each day.  After school, while some sighted students play, the blind must listen to their lessons and the day’s school notes being read to them by friends, and then listen to the lessons a second time on tape.  Transcribing both texts and lessons into Braille is a daily event.  

If the blind student does not have a good, regular reader or tape from a prior class, he must hire sighted persons able to type Braille to transcribe printed material into Braille. This is a very costly process. The price for an English-Vietnamese dictionary with 100,000 words transcribed in Braille costs more than one million dong  (US$ 69.00) while a printed dictionary is one twentieth the cost or about 50,000 VND (US$ 3.45). The near absence of proper materials, and the high cost for the materials that are available for blind students is one of the biggest challenges that all blind students must face.  For those students above grade 10, that challenge alone has prevented many blind people from gaining a higher education in Vietnam.

Lesson comprehension is the greatest and most important challenge that blind students face when attending schools with the sighted. Even if a blind student has readily available transportation and is able to possess all the necessary materials for a class, understanding concepts, ideas, and thoughts expressed by the sighted can be a formidable task for the young and relatively inexperienced blind student. It’s not very easy for older students, either.   This challenge to the blind is not often or well understood, and less frequently fully appreciated, by many sighted educators.  A sighted student uses his ears, eyes, and hands both to touch and write when learning school lessons.  Today even the poorest schools use audio-visual methods for teaching lessons. 

Teachers simultaneously use pictures to illustrate and words to explain some issues of a lesson. For instance, a teacher who wants to show his students the nations of Asia may use a map of different colors and shapes, as well as the names of the nations printed on map.  The teacher may show the students flags of each nation with outlines of their various designs and than have the students color in the national colors and print the name of each country below the flag.  Another teacher who wants to help his students learn about the natural resources of the nation, or even his own province, can draw on a black or white board using colors and shapes.

Such a lesson could sound like this to a blind student.  "The area colored in brown that I’m pointing to is a forested area has a good potential for harvesting wood. The area in green is strong in agriculture, while the area in gray has many stone quarries. The triangles you see on and off the land are the areas that have petroleum production or a good potential for that.  Each major city is marked with a large circle, with the smaller circles showing the smaller cities.  Hanoi, our nation’s capital, is marked with a star.”

The blind student who never had vision will be stuck at the start trying to imagine what “brown” is.  The once-sighted student might be thrown off the mark wondering why a forest is colored brown and not green as he still, vaguely remembers.  Neither student could possibly know from the lesson what areas were being described, or how to find them on a map for the sighted.  The sighted will have drawings and pictures marked with the information to study at home in order to complete the next lessons quiz, perhaps to name the areas that produce wood, agricultural products, stone, and petroleum products, and five of the nation’s leading city centers.

The only method by which a blind student can learn is by hearing and touch.  A three-dimensional map with different textures and words printed in Braille would give the same information to the blind as the sighted student received in the prior example of a class lesson.  By attending classes for the sighted, the blind student is compelled to study at home with a sighted tutor, either a friend helping for free or a paid assistant, and go over the subject matter in much less dramatic manner.   Not to ever be forgotten is that factor of time as well.

The wonder is that blind students can graduate from sighted classes and schools. However, the challenge of learning becomes a wall without doors for the blind to open when the blind try to advance their experiences beyond school and compete successfully with the sighted in finding jobs.  

Attending schools with sighted students may be helpful in overcoming a stereotyped image of the bind as helpless musicians, masseuses, or basket weavers.  Social interaction may build friendships and help integrate the sighted to understand the challenges of the blind, but is this really the best way to equip blind students with information and skills necessary to win a job?  Surely some blind students have succeeded, but have you considered how many more could have but failed only because of the current system of education?

I believe the best way to help the blind develop to the fullest extent of their many abilities is for them to attend schools for the blind that are equipped to attend to the special needs of the blind.  Challenges such as transportation, materials, and lesson comprehension can then be faced and overcome.  For transportation, blind high school and university students could have hostels near the school if not on the school grounds.  An acceptable alternative can be free door-to-door bus transportation.  However, for social as well as educational reasons, I believe a boarding school environment is best for the blind. In a boarding situation, the blind can share with each other the lessons as do the sighted, and resolve every day confusions that often clear up with the benefit of group discussion about shared experiences.  The use of a centralized store of needed learning and teaching tools, such as a Braille library with tapes and texts, audio labs, and computer facilities, will eliminate the current shortage and for higher learning, a complete absence of proper learning materials.  The students can then as a group focus on what materials are needed and necessary, and produce the Braille that they specifically need.

The most important improvement from a blind-only education system will be realized in lesson comprehension. Methods chosen to teach blind students are very different from methods to teach sighted ones. Blind students cannot uniformly reach their highest level of achievement unless they are separated from the sighted.  Perhaps in postgraduate studies the blind student doctor, lawyer, economist, physicist and chemist can join with the sighted if only for economy in scale.  But until they reach that level of higher study, blind students attending schools for the blind where they can help each other and grow undependably and strong is the best way to proceed. 

Integrating the blind with the sighted at school from the start is not helpful to the blind or the sighted.  Seldom do the bind and sighted communicate with each other, except for the few helpers to the blind.  When we consider better methods of encouraging the blind and sighted to be more comfortable with each other, let’s not forget this information age where the many forms of media such as television, newspapers, magazines, and even Internet chat rooms can expose the blind and sighted to each other. And more over, we can organize clubs for activities in which the blind and the sighted join together for social activities such as playing chess, reading, and discussing literature, listening to music, and playing sports.  It may surprise some sighted students to learn that the blind can swim and even play many forms of ball sports.

Such out of school social activities will help to eliminate social distance between the blind and the sighted. It will help to integrate them more than by compelling the blind to attend schools with the sighted.  School must be for studying and learning first.  Social actives at school are also important, but the schools should concentrate in their academic roles first.  As most school social actives are as unsuited for the blind as are the classrooms, this should not be a difficult concept to understand.  And even if the blind were encouraged to join in after school activities with the sighted, few if any would have the time.  No, for the blind attending a sighted school, there are no meaningful activities except the ones relating to study.

Because some who read this essay may not know me, it important at this point that I mention that am blind and have been blind for ten of my nineteen years. I am one of the few lucky blind students who, with out having proper materials, was yet able to graduate high school. I am now completing my second year of university study.  This fact may help you to better understand my point of view:  that blind students should go to schools for the blind that are supported by the education system to fully meet the needs of the blind as the very best way for the blind to get the most from our education and thus be better equipped with suitable knowledge for our careers and our lives.  If you are in a position to help the blind as an academic, political, or social leader, and if you have a better idea, please share it with me. 

_______________

Dang Hoai Phuc was blinded by an exploding bomb he unwittingly uncovered while working the small fields of his father's modest half hectare farm in BaRia-VungTau Province, Vietnam.  Only nine years old at the time, Phuc spent the next year recovering from his wounds that left his face and much of his upper torso pock marked with black gun powder and blue-green remnants of the metal casing.  In addition to blinding young Phuc, it tore apart his small pinky finger of his left hand, and took chunks of flesh from his chest and thighs.

Two years later, three years following the explosion, 12 year old Phuc entered the Bung Sang School for the blind where his life began.  While his former friends and neighbors still toil their small fields and none have gone much beyond the 4th grade in school, at 19 Phuc is completing his second year of university, is fully fluent in French and English, studies Japanese, plays Chopin on the piano with such emotion as to make the strongest among us weep, and scores and plays his own original music for guitar and piano.

The blind and sighted can learn more about Phuc and the Bung Sang School for the Blind by visiting their own page on this server.

Those interested in corresponding with Phuc can write to him here


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