Sabriye Tenberken embodies the notion that “impossible is nothing.” Born in Germany with a degenerative eye disease, she became totally blind at the age of twelve. Shunned by her friends and patronized by her teachers, Tenberken compensated by doing everything she could to show the world she was “just as good” as a sighted person; but she was miserable. It wasn’t until she enrolled in a boarding school for the blind that her attitude shifted. Surrounded by other blind students, she accepted her blindness and learned to focus on her abilities, rather than her disability. In addition to her academic subjects, she learned Braille, swimming, horseback riding, and whitewater kayaking.
After high school she enrolled at the University of Bonn—the only blind student out of thirty-thousand—and focused her studies on central Asia. She soon found that there was no Tibetan Braille script, so she developed her own. It later became the officially recognized Tibetan Braille.
Her Tibetan studies informed her that the blind were shunned and vilified in Tibet, where they believed that blindness was karmic retribution for sins in a past life. So just before her senior year, Tenberken left college to travel—alone—to China. From China she traveled on horseback through rural Tibet, talking to parents about enrolling their blind children in the residential school she planned to open in Lhasa. When villagers saw Tenberken, they at first refused to believe she was blind. Tenberken persuaded them that their children, too, could learn to read and write, and even ride a horse. One astounded father reportedly told her, “The prospect of your school is like a dream for us.”
In 2002, Tenberken and her life partner, Paul Kronenberg, opened their school for the blind, which they named “Braille Without Borders,” signifying their intent to support training centers for the blind anywhere in the world. Tenberken also eventually helped to devise a software system that enables blind Tibetans to type in Braille on a computer keyboard and the text appears on the screen in Tibetan print.
I learned of Tenberken through the movie Blindsight, Lucy Walker’s documentary that chronicles an expedition led by another “impossible is nothing” kind of guy. Erik Weihenmayer is an American mountaineer who became the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest. When Tenberken heard of his accomplishment, she invited him to come to Tibet as an inspiration for her students. Weihenmayer did more: he organized a team of climbers and gear to take Tenberken, Kronenberg, and six of their students to the top of Lhakpa Ri, the 23,000-foot sister peak to Mount Everest. Walker filmed the adventure, and her film left me speechless: I didn’t know whether to cry with grief at the cruelty of life for some innocent children; or with gratitude for people like Sabriye Tenberken, Paul Kronenberg, and Erik Weihenmayer.
Tenberken has received the Mother Teresa Award, the Albert Schweitzer Award, Time magazine European Hero and Asian Hero awards, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Kronenberg kindly assisted us in arranging a phone interview while he and Tenberken were on an advocacy and fundraising tour of the United States in February.
The MOON: What was the most difficult aspect of your adjustment to blindness?
Tenberken: The most difficult aspect was that other people saw me and treated me differently–as if I was not the same person they previously knew. Other kids-even my friends-didn’t want to be my friends anymore. Teachers treated me as if I were disabled. I felt as if I wasn’t accepted as a person any longer, except within my family. I hear this from a lot of blind people-that blindness isn’t the disability. It’s the social isolation that becomes a bigger barrier to overcome than blindness.
Sighted people are often afraid of blindness; they don’t like to imagine that they could become blind, too. They don’t understand that blindness is not the biggest crisis on Earth. But their fear gets in the way of having a relationship with a blind person.
Because it’s very difficult for a blind person to tell sighted people, “Don’t be afraid,” I prefer to tell blind people to develop a new relationship with themselves. For example, I whined for a long time about not being able to ride my bike, recognize my friends from a distance, or see colors-things that blindness had taken away from me. I had to consciously decide to focus on what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t. That became one of the questions I always ask kids who come to our school in Tibet: “What is great about being blind?”
At first there would be a long silence. No one had ever asked them that before. But then the answers would start coming:
“I can memorize much better than my sighted friends.”
“I can read at night in the dark.”
“I got to come to this school, and now I can read and write in three languages.”
For me, it took a long time-two or three years-to realize the gifts blindness had given me. For example, I could really focus and concentrate on what was important to me. I could communicate more clearly. I had to, or become invisible, because people talk around blind people as if we are not there. I became a problem-solver. I was forced to solve my own problems, so I became a problem-solver for other people-and for society-too. My imagination became much stronger.
People have this idea that blindness is darkness, but I don’t know a single blind person who describes their interior world as dark. Through imagination our world becomes much more colorful because we can color it however we like. For example, right now I’m sitting in a friend’s apartment above Central Park in New York City. Because I’ve heard Paul (Kronenberg) praise the view, when I look out the window I see Central Park, covered in snow. I see the lake. I see people moving about.
Although this is an image created in my mind, it satisfies me as completely as the images a sighted person “sees” when they’re reading a book. Often the images will become so clear that they’re disappointed when someone makes a film of the book and the images are different, or less satisfying. Of course, as a blind person, I’m never disappointed by “reality.”
The MOON: Do you ever speculate on what your life might have been had you not become blind?
Tenberken: Yes, of course. I imagine my life would have been very different. I probably wouldn’t live in India, although I probably would have gone out into the world. My mother was an adventurous person, and I have always been, as well. I’d probably have had a visual job-in architecture or art, perhaps. My brother is an artist and I’ve always been a very visual person. Or perhaps I would have become a mediocre actress. I like acting and it was something I wanted to do before I became blind. But I probably don’t have the drive or competitiveness that would have propelled me to success in that field.
This may sound surprising, but I think it’s a blessing not to have too many options in life. Limits can be very fortunate. They let you focus on what is necessary; on what is meaningful. It’s very important for everyone to have meaning in their lives, yet it is not expected of blind people that they will make meaningful contributions. Quite the contrary, it is expected that they will become a burden to society, dependent upon charity. But I was fortunate to have a philosophy teacher in high school who asked us, “Is there life after high school?”