OUT OF DARKNESS
Efforts nearly 70 years ago by a blind American woman laid the foundation
for education in Thailand for the visually impaired
Story and picture by ORATIP NIMKANNON
At age seven, an ophthalmologist recommended that she have an iridectomy, a surgical procedure whereby part of the iris is removed. The operation was successful and she regained some eyesight in her right eye. Although the newly gained sight was not much, it was enough to let her distinguish shapes and allow her to more easily relate to her environment and others around her.
Today, half a world away from her hometown in Virginia, USA, Caulfield is revered as the beacon that guides blind children out of darkness. At the time when most people refused to believe that a blind person could actually achieve anything in life, Caulfield proved them wrong.
After spending 15 years as a teacher in Japan, Caulfield arrived in Bangkok in 1938 with a vision to establish education for the blind. A year later, with help from Dr Phon Saengsinkaew, a Thai psychiatrist whom she met in Tokyo, Minister of Interior at the time, and other volunteers, Caulfield set up the country's first school for the blind - The Bangkok School for the Blind - in a small house on Silom road.
The Foundation for the Blind of Thailand was also founded in the same year to gather funds for the school.
``The curriculum focused mainly on how to teach visually impaired children to read, write, and help themselves in their daily lives,'' says Renu Duandao, former headmaster of the Bangkok School for the Blind, who now heads the volunteer section for the school.
In its early days, classes were taught by teachers and volunteers and did not follow a standard curriculum. About 20 years after the school opened its doors, it registered with the Ministry of Education as a special public school and adopted the state's primary education curriculum, just like the one used in regular schools, but adapted some parts to suit the special abilities of the visually impaired.
Passing the torch
Caulfield's early efforts to educate visually impaired children bore fruit after the Second World War. With increasing enrolments, the school relocated many times before it arrived at its present location on Rajavithi road.
By 1956, the Bangkok School for the Blind launched an integrated education programme, under leadership of its new head, Sister Rose Moore of the Salesian Order. Caulfield, meanwhile, had resigned as the director and returned to Japan; she later returned to Thailand permanently and dedicated the rest of her life to the development of education for the blind.
Under the integrated education programme, students finishing the elementary level with high academic performance can choose to continue in the secondary level at nearby regular schools. In the first year of the programme, four students were admitted to study at Saint Gabriel's College.
``Many people consider the integrated education programme a difficult thing to achieve,'' Ajarn Renu says. ``They think it's better to put visually impaired students together in a special school like ours, but that's not true,'' she adds.
Piyanat, a Mathayom 6 student at the school, says that studying with regular students at the secondary level helps him to experience life as part of regular society. Without this opportunity, he adds, it may prove difficult to adjust to the outside world later on.
In 1958, the school found it necessary to support students studying in the integrated education programme with resource teachers, whose task is to assist them as they study in regular schools. As the school sends the students off to a regular school, for example, it also sends a resource teacher along to coordinate with regular classroom teachers on special needs of visually impaired students.
``When it takes a regular person one attempt to accomplish a certain task, it takes a visually impaired person twice or three times the effort,'' says Sirinart Pianchang, the school's headmaster. ``But most of the students in the integrated programme have no problem in their studies,'' she adds.
In 1992, Sister Moore returned the school's administration to the Foundation. By 1997, the school was administered under a parallel system, in which education from kindergarten to Prathom 6 is conducted at the school, while from Mathayom 1 to 6 education takes place at an integrated school under the programme.
Today, these schools include Saint Francis Xavier Convent School, Saint Gabriel's College, Wat Makudkasat School, Samsen College, Santiras College, and Sri Ayudhya School.
Special, but not different
Starting from one student, the Bangkok School for the Blind now has a total of 254 students, the majority of whom are also boarding students. With 58 students in the integrated education programme, the school has achieved approximately a 1:6 teacher to student ratio.
``We use the same primary education curriculum as the regular schools but adapt some subjects to suit special abilities of visually impaired students,'' Ajarn Sirinart says. ``Some students are not totally blind but have low vision. They can study using normal textbooks with a blown-up font,'' she adds.
In kindergarten, students learn about physical movements and activities used in daily living. The main purpose, she says, is to teach them to know and help themselves through such simple daily activities as drinking water, buttoning a shirt, or grabbing physical objects, as well as to exercise their imagination and creative thinking abilities.
At the primary level, students learn to use a cane to navigate their way to different places in the Orientation and Mobility (O & M) class. In addition, they begin to study academic subjects and the Braille system.
``The students start by learning to read and write the Thai Braille alphabets. In a total of six dots, how many dots make up [the first alphabet], how many dots make up numbers. When they are a bit older, they study the English Braille system because it's the standard Braille code,'' Ajarn Sirinart explains.
The Braille system, a slate and stylus _ tools that help the students punch the Braille code on thick papers - become the standard learning tools that the students carry with them to classes.
``The textbooks also look different, with thick Braillon papers and embossed dots,'' she says, adding that one Braille textbook is twice as thick as a regular textbook. Without the sense of sight, or with low vision, visually impaired students rely very much on the sense of touch, hearing, and imagination. Learning materials, as a result, must be designed to satisfy the students' special needs as well as target learning objectives.
In a math class, for example, the equipment used in a regular classroom, such as rulers or measuring tapes, is modified to have raised numerical marks. Although touching and feeling the real object is the best way for a visually impaired student to learn, Ajarn Sirinart says, teachers can help by creating three-dimensional models when access to the real object is impossible.
``Building imagination is the most important element when teaching visually impaired students,'' she says. Because of this, teachers with perfect vision sometimes are not as good as teachers who have a low vision or are themselves blind, she adds.
Besides traditional learning tools and materials, new media technologies, such as computers, the Internet, MP3 players, and translation software, have given visually impaired students a tremendous aid and enable them to study independently. With translation software and a computer, students can switch back and forth between the Braille system and regular alphabets.
A helping hand
No matter how sophisticated the learning tools and equipment, however, education for the blind may find little progress without the help from volunteers. For without this group of people, the Bangkok School for the Blind itself may not have arrived where it is today.
``Sometimes, when we can't type Braille quickly enough in class, the volunteers help by reading the texts again to us after class,'' says Piyanat. ``Without the volunteers, we also could not complete some of the assignments.''
``Volunteers can help us in all kinds of ways,'' Ajarn Renu says, ``such as in academics, recreation, music, and sports.'' While university students make up the largest group of volunteers, working professionals and people sent by a court order also help out from time to time. On a regular day, the school receives up to 20 or 30 volunteers. This number is greatly reduced on rainy days, however.
Some volunteers can also help out without actually coming to the school. Low vision students need storybooks to read, and volunteers can help create them from home. ``But the font must be very big _ 72 points in size _ and printed with black ink on a white background,'' Ajarn Renu says. ``Once you've finished creating the book, you can read aloud and record it onto an MP3 player,'' she adds. Although much has changed from the day that Genevieve Caulfield first started the school, the school's dedication towards raising the living standard of visually impaired children remains the same. She has transformed society's perception of blind children, from a meaningless group of people to one that can contribute something positive to society.
If Caulfield were alive today, she would be proud of her vision and her determination to see it through. By refusing to let her disability get in her way, Caulfield has contributed more to the education of the blind in Thailand than anyone. Her efforts were recognised in 1961 when she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding. It is fitting, therefore, that December 12, the day she passed away in 1972, is celebrated among the blind as Miss Caulfield Day.
For more information on the Bangkok School for the Blind, contact the Foundation for the Blind at 02-246-0070, 02-248-1365-8, or visit www.blind.or.th
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Last modified: March 6, 2007