“For the Benefit of Those Who See” Challenges the Stereotypes Against Those Who Can’t
Have you done the “Birdbox” challenge or ever considered what it would be like to cross the street without actually seeing anything, only relying on the echo of sounds bouncing off buildings and cars? Having dealt with terrible vision myself and relying on high prescription glasses and contacts to be able to see two feet in front of me, learning more about blindness has always intrigued me. While browsing the non-fiction shelfs at my local library to find something to read over winter break, I discovered a book titled “For the Benefit of Those Who See” by Rosemary Mahoney.
The book details the experiences of the author, a Massachusetts native, as she embarks on a journalism assignment to interview a school for the blind in Tibet and later recounts her experiences working as an English teacher in another school for the blind in India.
The book follows Mahoney’s experiences of first feeling uncomfortable being around people who are blind to accepting and educating the blind, a somewhat lengthy history (and mistreatment) of people who are blind in America and the founding of schools for the blind, such as Perkins, just outside of Boston. Sometimes the book seems to pity people who are blind and be in awe of their “powers” which at times was off-putting.
The also book chronicles many of the “typical” feelings sighted people have toward the blind. For example, people who can see have the fear and horror of going blind, for they would forget the beauty of a sunset or lose the memory of the faces of their loved ones. Furthermore, witnessing people who are blind or with low vision navigating the world like any sighted person seems nearly impossible to do. Yet, the author’s previous misconceptions of the blind seem to slowly whisk away as she experiences first-hand the world of the blind through her travels.
Mahoney travels to Tibet to interview the co-founder of Braille Without Borders, Sabriye Tenberken. Tenberken, who is fully blind, is energetic, quick witted and confident. Tenberken and her husband founded of the first school for the blind in Tibet in 1998, educating children from ages 5 to 15 in Tibetan, Chinese and English Braille as well as in conversational skills and mobility. Tibetan students can enroll in the program for two years and become prepared to enter a regular elementary school, gain skills in independent living and confidence and even become prepared to take on jobs such as agriculture, computers or music.
Tenberken captivates and crushes Mahoney’s ideal of a person who is blind. Upon first meeting Tenberken, Mahoney cannot tell she is legally blind, besides from the use of her cane. The two immediately go on an adventure through the city where Tenberken seamlessly navigates the streets like an expert tour guide while detailing her experiences of founding the school and her personal battle with blindness.
Along the way, Mahoney learns that Tibet, like many other developing countries, holds 90 percent of the world’s blind population. Much of the blindness in Tibet is treatable, developed through cataracts or the high elevation but due to the cultural superstitions, such as blindness being a punishment, and the country’s limited resources, it is rarely treated. In many cases, children who are blind have been blind since they were infants and are seen as useless and confined inside all day without any education or compassion. Braille Without Borders gives hope and purpose to these children who would otherwise succumb to their cultural fate.
One of the most influential aspects of the book comes from the account of Mahoney experiencing blindness for herself. She has the opportunity to interview two teenage girls who have been students in the program for a while. They ask Mahoney to trust them as they guide her blindfolded through the streets to run errands and visit the temple. At first, Mahoney is skeptical and even slightly terrified as the girls link their arms on either side of her and set off through the city with their canes maneuvering side to side. Mahoney recounts feeling like she will whack into something, trip or get hit by a car. Slowly, however, these feelings start to fade as the girls assure her that they are safe and explain how they navigate a world they cannot see.
Since they cannot see, the girls have developed acute senses especially in hearing and smell that allow them to sense changes in their environment. For example, the girls noticed the changing feel of the pavement under their feet from rocky to smooth signaling that they need to turn right soon or when the clicking of their canes begins to echo signaling many buildings in the area. Mahoney never noticed these seemingly insignificant changes when she relied on sight to navigate and constantly was in awe at the girls’ stories and success at experiencing the world.
Overall, “For the Benefit of Those Who See” opened my eyes to the empowering world that unlocks for the blind to experience, given the right and access to an education. Tenberken became a pioneer for children in Tibet to have a future. We need more people like her. She is quoted saying, “Not until I accepted my blindness, did I begin to live.” This quote serves true in every situation to live a fulfilling life. Once students accept their blindness, they can freely learn to see things from a different perspective and become independent.
Of course, there will be occasional bumps into things and along the road just as everyone else, but these students show pure joy in feeling valued, loved and as recognized members of society. Themes such as having positive human interactions and the belief that all people have value circulate throughout this book and serve as helpful reminders that all people matter.