The Future at Their Fingertips

Visually impaired students in Ethiopia learn independence

by James Jeffrey with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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Weurke Habtam stands before 99 of her classmates, reading aloud from a sheet of announcements. Among other topics, she notes the day as World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. The 15-year-old’s deft fingertips glide back and forth over Braille indentations on pages held in front of her burgundy uniform.

With that, the assembly marks the beginning of another school day at Shashemene School for the Blind, which teaches first- through sixth-grade students, ages 7 to 18.

The girls, 47 in all, line up before a flagpole. One affixes the flag of the surrounding Oromia region to the rope, using a mark on the cloth to find the top. Alongside a second pole, 52 boys stand in a similar arrangement while one attaches the green, yellow and red flag of Ethiopia. After the students raise the flags and sing the national anthem, they file away, each placing a hand on the shoulder of the student to the front, while many use another hand to trace a wall guiding them to class.

However, it soon becomes clear this caterpillar-like procession is more of a formality; throughout the day, blind and partially sighted students walk about the school unassisted, navigating rooms and passing through doorways without having to feel their way, guided by their own sense of spatial mapping.

“They learn the school’s layout and always seem to know where to go,” says Sister Ashrida Mendes, 60, a petite Indian sister with a ready smile. She is one of three Franciscan Sisters of St. Mary of the Angels who manage the school, which lies about 150 miles south of Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital.

Students range from fully blind to partially sighted, with impairments owing to a variety of problems — many preventable — such as small pox, measles, vitamin A deficiency, malnutrition, glaucoma or inherited retinal conditions. Regardless of their unique circumstances, students can all expect to learn the same crucial trait: independence.

“Here we try to teach the students to do everything on their own,” Sister Ashrida says. “It’s about giving them life skills for when they enter the wider world afterwards.”

In a second-grade mathematics class, students sit paired at desks with wooden clock faces studded with metal at the hour positions, learning how to calculate time. The school fosters a strong ethos of nurturing, encouraging older or more academically minded students to guide their peers. Ranked number two in his grade, 8-year-old Tamensken assists 10-year-old Kaseem, who can only partially hear from one ear.

Even at his young age, Tamensken has big plans. “I want to be a lawyer,” he says.

In a nation where, according to a 2005 United Nations report, fewer than 1 percent of children with special needs have access to education, the sisters and staff of the Shashemene School for the Blind have been helping students achieve such goals for decades.

In the morning, boys gather around bunk beds in their dormitory, squaring off bed sheets before positioning, tucking in and smoothing blankets. At the bottom of each set of bunk beds is a pair of drawers, one for each boy, storing neatly folded clothes and a handful of other possessions.

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