Creator of Braille Script of Tibetan Language
Visual impairment : Blind since the age of 12 due to a retinal disease
Born : 1970
Sabriye Tenberken is a native of Cologne in Germany. When she was 12, a congenital retinal degenerative disease led to loss of sight.
However, she did not let that interfere with her education and went on to study at Bonn University, where she chose for the study of central Asian sciences, with its main subjects Tibetology. She was the first blind student to opt for this course, so there was no established path to follow. There was not even a Braille alphabet for the 30 syllable characters of the Tibetan language. She had no choice but to develop her own system to meet the needs of her studies.
Sabriye took just two weeks to develop the Braille script for Tibetan. Her Tibetan Braille incorporates the principles of Braille with the syllable-based features of the Tibetan script. The resulting script is understandable, simple, and easy to learn.
Already at highscool she had approached various non-governmental organisations to do fieldwork, but none believed in her abilities to go in the field. Nevertheless, Sabriye then decided to promote her Braille script in Tibet. In the summer of 1997 she travelled alone to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. She approached the mountain paradise on horseback, crossing dangerous passes. In Tibet she met her future partner Paul Kronenberg (Dutch).
She had to tackle a lot of opposition and bureaucracy there but was finally granted permission to open a school. Sabriye and Paul opened their boarding school at Lhasa in May 1998, with help from the local people. Both raised the initial funds for the school by selling Sabriye's autobiography; My Path leads to Tibet (original title Mein Weg fuehrt nach Tibet). In this book she described how she dealt with becoming blind. She also wrote about the history of the Tibetan first project for the blind. The book has been published in 13 languages.
Their project was a big boon for Tibet, where one in every 70 people is visually impaired. It is double the global average, because of Tibet’s high altitude and sun exposure. Moreover medical treatment was for many years hampered by the belief that blindness is a punishment for misdeeds in a previous life.
In total 88 students benefitted from the centre so far. Teaching them to read and write in three languages: Tibetan, Chinese and English. Students also undergo vocational and computer training, and are taught daily living skills. Perhaps the most important lesson is self-reliance. Sabriye says: "We want to show the kids that they don't have to be ashamed of being blind. We want them to stand up and say: 'I am blind, so what!"
Sabriye and Paul founded Braille Without Borders (BWB) in September 2002. The new name signifies that the organisation is now preparing to work anywhere in the world and - more importantly - that it doesn't want to set any borders for blind people.
Back in Tibet, Sabriye and Paul have also started a vocational training centre for blind adults. Situated on a farm around 300 kilometres from Lhasa, trainees are taught animal husbandry, forestry and vegetable cultivation.
Initially Sabriye was directly involved in teaching children at her school. Now she together with Paul coordinates and counsels the project, and looks after the training of teachers for blind people. They are preparing their first students to take over the management of the project. Further, they are training them to select and supervise all staff-members, to do fundraising and communication with officials and sponsor organisations.
One cannot tell that Sabriye is blind because of her body language and activities full of energy. Sabriye, Paul and six teenagers from the Lhasa school went trekking with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to summit Mount Everest. They tried to climb Lhakpa Ri, a 7,000 metres peak north of Everest. It was a great experience despite the top was not reached due to bad weather.
In March 2005, Sabriye received the Luce Hadley award for courage in New York. She was also awarded the Bundes Verdienstkreuz by the German President in October 2005, which is the only General Order of Merit in Germany. Two months later, she and Paul Kronenberg were honoured with the national fundraising award in Germany. This was in recognition of raising funds by emphasising the abilities of blind people rather than appealing to donors’ pity.
Sabriye and Paul are now establishing the BWB International School for Development and Project near Trivandrum in Kerala, India. A trust with the name Braille Without Borders has been registered in Kerala. Here visually impaired trainees from developing countries will learn to set up schools with the BWB concept in their countries along the lines of the original in Tibet. Subjects to be taught include English, management, fundraising techniques, computer and internet use, and website development.
Sabriye’s new book: Das Siebte Jahr - Von Tibet nach Indien (The Seventh Year - From Tibet to India) is due to be published in mid-2006.