65th IFLA Council and General
Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999
A Handful of Leaves: Library Services for the Blind in Thailand
Prayat Punong-ong1 and Bryan Roderick Hamman2
Many well-meant aids given to the disabled create a new kind of barrier. Obstacles that defy the advancement of the disabled in society are: 1. patronizing attitudes; 2. architectural and infrastructural; 3. discriminatory laws and regulations; and, 4. limited access to information. For centuries human society has established libraries for the collection of literature, science and history. The greater the civilisation the more prominent its focus on the written word. Libraries are a sign of advancement. The blind should have equal access to this resource. The blind and their organizations need to use technology and the Internet to their advantage. Public and school libraries need to be encouraged to include Braille and talking book sections. The whole nation benefits when the disabled become contributing citizens.
While crossing a busy Bangkok intersection, my walking cane was knocked away by mocking youths. There I stood without my sole aid, unable to see or hear the traffic signal, trucks whizzing by. It's humbling having to ask for help; it's humiliating when one has no choice. A well-meaning fellow took me across the street, but he had led me back to where I had started. I asked some girls for help. One of them said, "My mother told me that the blind are either being punished for past sins or that they have some dreaded disease: either way if we touch you it's bad luck."
This scorn ended with the sound of rustling leaves and a branch snapping. "Here, grab this branch and I'll lead you." Interestingly, the girl had solved the problem of touching me by putting a barrier between the two of us. The problem with the branch was that it didn't communicate her movements very well, so when the girl moved ever more quickly, as one does crossing a busy Bangkok street, my grip slid along the branch until I had nothing but a handful of broken leaves, and I was once again standing in the middle of traffic. Happily a traffic cop (the law) came to my rescue.
The irony of this story is that, like many perhaps well-meant aids given to the disabled, the help given may create a new kind of barrier. Previously, the programs of organizations working for the welfare of the disabled dictated what the lives of the disabled would be like: everything was done on their behalf. Today, more sensitively, government organizations and NGOs, are trying to work together with the disabled to help them help themselves. Still there are obstacles that defy the advancement of the disabled in society:
1. The traditional viewpoint regarded the disabled as burdens who could not cope with life by themselves, and therefore must be overprotected or discarded. Once when I was hosting friends at a restaurant, the waiter came to my friend, and asked, "What would the blind man like to eat?" Like I didn't know myself! Minutes later when I said, "I have to go, it's 10 minutes to 7." a person at the next table said, "How does he know? Hey, can you speak Braille?"
In these days of political correctness, the word 'handicapped' is considered too negative or inaccurate to be used to describe disabled people. Handicapped means 'a disadvantage we give to someone who is more able'. In golfing, the better players receive a greater handicap so that they have to play to the best of their ability to win. Ironically, a disabled person described as handicapped connotes a person disadvantaged so that he or she must play the game of life more cleverly than the non-handicapped person. However, it would appear most of the disabled have been pitifully over-handicapped. The saddest commentary on our society is that the non-disabled assume their ability as their right, while the disabled somehow derserve their lot.
A blind American, Miss Caulfield, established the first Thai school for the blind in 1939. Twenty years later the Ministry of Education gave a recommendation that graduates of this school receive certificates upon graduation finally accepting the fact that a blind person could be mentally capable.
Today we have the Caufield Memorial Library for the Blind, which is a testimony of Miss Caulfield's vision that the blind be an integral part of society. However, the library has less than 1,000 titles listed (according to IFLA web site). Other organizations, namely the Christian Foundation for the Blind and several government schools for the blind have set up material resource production but they barely keep pace with the demand for texts for school let alone consider embarking on the production and storage of books or tapes for the blind. The bottom line is that Thailand doesn't have a Braille library neither are Brailled materials considered an essential part of school or university library collections.
2. Another obstacle the disabled face in society is architectural and infrastructural. The more the country develops without by-laws for the disabled, the more buildings go up and paraphernalia (like mail boxes, hydrants, walk-overs, power poles, etc.) are put in the streets without regard to navigation by the disabled. In Thailand, there are 40,000 schools. However, many children on crutches or in wheelchairs find it practically impossible to attend class or go to the library, as no consideration has been taken for their mobility. Forethought and simple adaptations could make buildings and sidewalks accessible.
One of the more recent buzz words for the handicapped is to call them challenged. However, to be truly challenged, one must have ability. Grade 2 is a challenge for the Grade 1 graduate. Learning to ride a two-wheeler is a challenge to tricyclist. A difficult piece of music is a challenge when it exceeds the pianist's current ability. Everest is a challenge for the skillful and experienced climber. Sight is no challenge for a blind person because seeing is impossible: therefore, he cannot be visually challenged! We can be challenged to greater accomplishments but not visually!
3. A third obstacle is the laws and regulations which discriminate against the disabled. Every year blind students apply to take university entrance exams but are denied the right because of their blindness: revealing a prevailing, exclusive attitude in the leadership of these institutions. Surely, it is in the institutions of higher learning and research that the disabled should be most accepted: Where physical limitations should matter the least?! Where their contribution would be most sought for?! Where one should expect to find the library resources to stimulate their mental abilities?! If people show ability mentally should higher learning not be made accessible in spite of physical deficiencies? Where would civilization be without the contributions of the disabled people like Bach, Milton, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, or Stephen Hawking etc. etc.
Disabled usually describes something that has functioned but is now broken. Some disabled people truly can be described as having once been physically whole but who experience a limitation due to some injury. However, some have never known sight, or hearing, or a full body - are these people disabled? and disabled to do what?
Limitations are placed on the handicapped, the impaired, the disabled, the challenged because it is believed they are not capable in any sense... you know, like shouting at the blind man because he can't hear. As soon as society recognizes the capabilities of the disabled a quiet revolution occurs: raising public awareness is an urgent task. For example, this year, 42 blind youths cycled 650 km on tandem bicycles from one end of Thailand to Bangkok. The best part of the experience was the realization in our youth that they could aspire to a great challenge and succeed. The public was also thrilled to see and learn who the heroes were.
Our language and expectations must be clarified. Visually impaired, hearing impaired, physically impaired do accurately describe a loss of ability or indeed the presence of a handicap. We are most impaired - reduced in function - when our access to education, learning resources and hope for future employment are denied us.
4. A further obstacle is in access to information. For centuries human society has established libraries for the collection of literature, science and history. The greater the civilisation the more prominent its focus on the written word, the reading of it (i.e. literacy), and the preservation and distribution of it (i.e. in libraries). Libraries are a sign of advancement. Shouldn't the blind have equal access to books, what Barbara Tuchman describes as 'the carriers of civilization'?!
The blind can only obtain Brailled or tape-recorded reading materials with great difficulty - if at all. Yet information is a necessary tool enabling any individual to make proper decisions affecting the quality of his life. Once the disabled emerge from their integrated school experience, charity stops and society looks askance. Adjustment to the 'real' world is a serious problem. The disabled persons who have entered university face competitive classmates and skeptical profs. Cynicism and skepticism of the prospects for the blind seem well-founded when the NGOs cannot provide the Brailled texts these students (like any students) require, and so they are left to struggle. Struggling means trying to absorb every lecture instantly and retaining the information in long term memory until exam day or depending on friends to read whole volumes.
If education is a trial, it is nothing compared to what graduates face once they have completed their degrees and try to find work. Then they are like ghosts - invisible to employers. They feel worthless and frustrated. Asked to take the initiative and go into self-employment, they may shy away, so many of them begin and end their working lives as beggars or burdens to their families - their learning, skills and strength dissipated with lack of use. Again, this is where an accessible library for the blind in Thaland is needed. Many of us know the relief that reading can be when we are depressed or feeling hopeless. Truly books can give hope and even occasion for upgrading one's education on one's own.
I believe and push for technology to work for the blind. The blind and their organizations need to use technology and the Internet to their advantage. For example, many web sites offer etext materials: this is a snap to Braille. How great it would be to have such etext in Thai or for Roman-lettered textbooks needed by the blind to compete effectively with sighted peers!
The hoped-for result of this pre-conference and then the IFLA conference in Bangkok is the adoption of the political will to insure public and school libraries include Braille and talking book sections. As the economy begins to improve we must actively make the disabled into responsible and contributing citizens, so the whole nation will benefit. We mustn't leave the disabled standing in the middle of traffic with a handful of broken leaves! Help us to get across the street - all the way!
1President and Founder of the Christian Foundation for the Blind in Thailand (CFBT), President of the Thai Association for the Blind (TAB) BA in Teaching English and Education Administration, MPA (NIDA, Thailand)
2English Correspondent at the Christian Foundation for the Blind in Thailand (CFBT) BA languages, BSc Ag., MSc Agronomy (Alberta, Canada)