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International Perspective

For your reading convenients below you will find all the International Perspective published in 2015

March 2015

By Mary

My name is Mary and I was brought up in a small countryside in Southern China, in Hunan province. I attended a regular elementary school with my siblings. I received no assistance from either the school or my teachers. During those five years in elementary school I learned by listening, and answering questions.

There was, and still is, only one blind school in this providence. My family was very poor, and my parents could not afford to send me. In addition, there was no blind organization that could help with the tuition. This was a sad and dark time for me. I was very lonely and depressed.

Then when I was 18, one of my brothers asked me if I still wanted to learn. I was so excited, I couldn’t believe my ears. My brother went on to tell me that there was only one major at this school for the blind, and it was becoming a masseuse. I, of course said yes! It was my siblings who paid for my tuition and all of my other expenses.

I was there for 2 ½ years, and I did received my masseuse degree. While I was there I learned how to read and write in braille. It was through the help of other classmates, and my self-determination that I was able to be a fluent reader and writer of braille. I loved reading and learning. I taught myself all sorts of subjects, such as chemistry, math, physics, and so forth.

I did run my own masseuse parlor for ten years. I had once asked the Disabled Person’s Federation for assistance but they declined. From that point on, I never asked them for help again. There are not many services available for the blind in this part of China. There is only one braille library in all of China.

I have seen different views from the people in China. Some people discriminate, others are embarrassed, and yet others are accepting. I know of some blind people that when they were young, they were not allowed to go out in public for fear of embarrassing the family. I was the only blind student in my elementary school. I always told myself that I could do everything that sighted people could do if I tried my best. I did not interact with other blind people until I went to the school to become a masseuse. It wasn’t until that time that I accepted the fact that I was blind.

Things are somewhat better for blind children nowadays. There is more awareness that education is very important to all children, including those with disabilities. It is also more affordable. However, the so called professions for blind persons seem to be limited to masseuse and teaching English.

I feel that you have to be your own best advocate. I mean you have to find the resources that are out there and available, no matter how few there may be. Take advantage of what is given or offered to you and make the most of it. I am a very strong and independent woman and I am constantly learning. And my blindness does not interfere with my drive and determination.

April 2015

Israel in A Nutshell
By Tali

People often ask me what life in Israel is like. They're convinced it's very stressful, and it can be. But it can also be wonderful! It's a small country, with about 8.5 million people.

Many things around here are very much like in America. We have Mickey D's and Burger King, for example. There are huge malls, big movie theaters, parks, etc. No casinos, though.

The great thing about Israel is the variety and selection. For example, when it comes to food, you can find many cuisines around here. There are many restaurants of Chinese, Thai and Japanese food, alongside Italian places and steak houses. At home, we mostly eat Mediterranean style. It means lots of vegetables, local cheeses, olive oil, pasta, and the famous Hummus.

When it comes to culture, we also get many influences from different places. You can hear European and American music on the radio, alongside the local talents.

When I came to America the first time, I realized how many things we don't have here that are popular over there, like Mac & Cheese and Mexican food. But I also noticed songs that are popular there and didn't make it to Israel. Could any of you imagine going through the 80's without hearing about Jesse's Girl? LOL!

The coast line of Israel lies along the Mediterranean Sea and summers here are a great time to lay on the beach under a nice shade. That's one of the more grueling seasons in Israel and the most dominant one. We get a very short and mild winter, most years. Think of Texas, if you want to get a feel for it.

And in spite of what you might hear on the news, it's not always dangerous around here. Bombs don't o off all the time, thank God. Yes, when you go to the mall, a security guard will ask you to open your bag or the trunk of your car for inspection. Yes, every official building has a metal detector. And yes, there is an everlasting sense of caution. But all in all, we just live our lives the best way we can, trying to stay sane against all odds.

May 2015

Part Two by Tali Sarnetzky

Israel with a Cane or a Dog

The great news about this country is that as time passes by, services and accessibility for the blind and visually impaired keep on improving here.

When I leave my house to travel somewhere, I can find a distinct dip in the curb as I approach a crosswalk. It is very easy to distinguish. At the bus stop in most places, I can find at a designated location, a Braille sign that details the number of the bus line and, in raised print, the destination. Near some of the bus stops, I can find an electronic board that announces the estimated arrival time of the bus and many of them have a button that activates a recording of the announcements in real time. The buses themselves, as well as the trains, have recorded announcements of the different stops which play as the stop is approached.

If I travel by train, which is a very pleasant experience in Israel, I can call ahead of time and reserve assistance onto the train and off of it. In the train stations themselves, one can find quite often guiding lines on the floor that direct the user to the ticket booth, the information desk, the steps into the station and even the restrooms.

In public places, one can often find talking elevators, as well as Braille marked elevator buttons. In many cities, there are accessible traffic lights that tick at different speeds when the light is green or red. I am part of a group of blind and visually impaired people in my town who are trying to encourage the installation of accessible traffic lights along our main street, which is very busy.

The one thing I personally wish we had in Israel is talking ATM's, but alas, not yet. I remember walking into a convenience store with my cousin several years ago and finding an ATM that had Braille on the buttons. She was so excited! I thought it was funny, because the store was located near a gas station in the middle of a highway! Let's face it, friends: How often do we stop to fill up our canes or dogs on gas and think to ourselves - "Great, I need to get some cash! Why don't I go into this convenience store and use that Braille marked ATM?!"

We have in Israel an agency dedicated to help blind and visually impaired people, as well as a program that assists in finding jobs. Granted, it is not easy to find a job these days, not even for sighted people. We have rehab teachers, who these days, teach anything from mobility through household maintenance techniques to using accessible devices. The agency for the blind and visually impaired helps with the purchase of assistive technology, but this help is available only one time and, as we know, our technology gets updated quite often and at high prices. We have three companies that offer assistive technology, including patches for Jaws and Window Eyes that allow this useful program to read text in Hebrew and Arabic.

The crown jewel of the services for the blind in Israel, in my opinion, is the guide dog school located in the center of the country. The school itself was designed by a team of professionals in a way that allows the student to walk everywhere without assistance and without a dog or a cane! You can follow markings on the floor and walls. The place itself is surrounded by trees and flowers and is like a little piece of heaven. The instructors are dedicated and supportive and they even have a psychologist on the premises to help new guide dog owners. After the course, the instructor visits the new owner and dog team at their home to help them make a smooth transition.

For students who decide to go to university or college, there are several centers of support. The largest one is in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University, which is my alma mater. They offer readers who can read books and handouts out loud, accessible computers and other forms of assistive technology on the premises and on personal loan to the students, assistance during tests, Braille printing services, and much more. They even offer a course of preparation for the future students who have to take the Israeli equivalent of the SAT's.

Slowly but surely, things begin to arrive in Israel, such as the descriptive video services in movies. These movies can be borrowed from the Israeli library for the blind, which also organizes special viewings of these movies. The best thing about this library is that for the last ten years or so, it's been producing books in MP3 format on CD's. This makes listening very simple and convenient. Readers can also listen to recorded articles from different newspapers and magazines online and download them to their computers. The catalog of the library is available both online and on the phone, where one can choose from different menus and narrow the search, even down to the first letters of the name of an author!

When it comes to sports activities, we have plenty of choices! There are groups of tandem bike riding, kayaking and sailing, running, walking, goalballing, lawn bowling, gymnastics, etc. I myself play lawn bowling, which is a pleasant game similar to bowling, but the target is a single small ball instead of the ten pins.

As I said, things keep on improving all the time. When I was younger, I thought that things would remain behind and that I could never receive good services and support. But fortunately, time has proved me wrong.

June 2015

By Adrijana Prokopenko

Each year more and more blind children come to the United States from overseas. Some arrive as adoptees, and others come as immigrants with their families. Their early experiences in the developing world are often quite different from those of blind children who begin life in the U.S. In this article Adrijana Prokopenko describes her life as a blind student in Macedonia.

I was born on February 2, 1979, in Skopje, Macedonia. I grew up in Skopje, and I also spent a great part of my childhood with my grandparents, who lived in the eastern part of the country. Macedonia is a small nation in Eastern Europe. It has only about two million people. Until 1991 it was part of the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia is a developing nation, and it is undergoing many changes.

I was born three months premature, and I spent two and a half months in an incubator. The oxygen that helped keep me alive also damaged my eyes. I became blind due to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).

As soon as my parents learned about my blindness, they called the national school for the blind, which was in our city. They talked to one of the teachers, who agreed to visit us and give my parents some tips about raising me. There was no early intervention program, so people tried to help each other in any way possible. They shared whatever knowledge they had about blindness. I don't think I was even aware that I was blind when I was a small child. I was a lively, curious kid who did most of the things sighted kids do. I loved to ride my bike outside. I liked to play in the park, to run and exercise.

When I was old enough to start school, I went to the school for the blind that my parents had contacted. I had the same teacher who had visited me at home. It was great, because she knew me very well. I soon learned braille and math. I started playing the piano and participating in extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, we never had instruction in orientation and mobility or classes on daily living skills. There was no instructor qualified to teach in those areas, so we had no chance to learn the basic skills of independence. Also, not much technology was available. We had no electronic equipment of any kind. I only had the Perkins Braillewriter. Even Braillers were hard to obtain and repair.

The students who came from other cities lived in the dormitory and went home on holidays. Because I lived in Skopje I was a day student. Students who had some sight were given many advantages at the school. They were encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities and to help in the dormitory and kitchen. The totally blind students were expected to study music and to read the small collection of Braille books we had available. It was rare for a totally blind student to get involved in sports or other extracurricular activities in the same way that partially sighted students were. It only happened when initiated by a teacher or some other person. A few of the teachers at the school were blind, and they were a great help to me.

I talked to them about many things, and they became my second family. When I was in fifth grade, I started to learn English. My English teacher was a wonderful role model, and I always felt happy in her class. She was always willing to help us, in class and outside. Knowing her, I realized that I wanted to be a teacher. I practiced English by listening to the radio and TV. I became interested in learning how blind people lived in other parts of the world. I wanted to travel and experience life that is quite different from what we know here in Macedonia.

In 1998 I learned about a program for international students sponsored by the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. By that time I had graduated from high school and completed my first year of University studies. I discovered that I met all of the criteria, and I was accepted into the program. I had heard many good things about education for the blind in the U.S., and I was thrilled to have this opportunity. My parents were very happy for me. They wanted me to have a bright future and to achieve my goals, and they realized that in our country I could not get the training I needed. I am sure that at times they worried about me and felt sad that they wouldn't be able to see me for a whole year. Still, they also knew that if they kept me here, they couldn't help me much and I wouldn't be pleased either.

I entered the Overbrook program in the fall of 1998. The program was designed to teach cane travel, assistive technology, and leadership skills. I also studied English and took part in choir and sports. The teachers challenged us and expected us to work hard, so we were busy most of the day. There were ten international students in the program. My friends were all students from countries where blind people lived much as we did in Macedonia. I related to them easily from the beginning. We were there for each other at any time of the day or night. I loved my time in the United States, but I missed my family very much, especially around the holidays. On the weekends we left Overbrook and stayed with host families in the Philadelphia area. At the end of the school year we took a trip to Washington, D.C. We planned the whole trip for the students and staff, from travel and accommodations to meals and sightseeing. After a year at Overbrook I obtained a scholarship to study at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus. I graduated from the English teaching department in 2003.

When I returned to Macedonia I began looking for a job. Because I was blind, no one wanted to give me a chance. I went to countless interviews and was always turned down. Finally a friend of mine introduced me to another English teacher. Through her I found some private students who came to me a few hours a month, but I still needed a full-time job. At last, in September 2006, I found a job at the school for the blind that I had attended as a child. I enjoy working there, and I do whatever I can to help my students.

Some things at the school have improved since I was a student there. The school recently acquired a Braille embosser, so we may soon have access to more books than ever before. However, there is still no trained staff to teach orientation and mobility, daily living skills and similar specialized courses that most blind people in the West are easily able to get. Without cane travel skills, it is very hard for blind people in Macedonia to travel independently.

The unemployment rate among blind Macedonians is very high, as much as80 percent. Blind workers are unemployed because they are not qualified to hold jobs or because employers simply do not want to hire them. For this reason most blind people struggle financially. I have known very few blind people who marry and raise children.

Teaching blind students involves much more than teaching a particular subject. Each of my students is special in unique ways. Some want to become musicians or computer programmers. Some plan to be massage therapists or telephone operators; blind people in Macedonia have traditionally found work in these fields. I try to introduce my students to blind people who are working, and the students get very excited about these contacts.

I hope that my students will have many opportunities that were not available when I was growing up. I hope they will not have to encounter the discrimination that was such an obstacle for me and for so many others.

July 2015

Good Day from Down Under, Australia
By Jenny Newell

Hello, my name is Jenny and I am 52 years young. I live very close to the coastline in the northeastern part of Australia. The town in which I live in is very small, with a population of only 7,000 people. There are no trains or traffic lights in my town. However, everything else I need is in walking distance, including the beach at the Pacific Ocean.

It wasn’t until the age of 12 that I was diagnosed with RP. No one else in my family had this eye condition. Prior to that, people just thought I was clumsy. I was a very shy girl while in school. Usually I sat in the back and was very quiet. No allowances were made for my low vision during my school years. I never learned braille, but would like to learn some now.

There are three guide dog schools throughout Australia. I attended the one in Melbourne. I have had two guide dogs in the past. Since everything is so close to me now, I use a cane. I also use a mini guide, a small device you hold in your hand that vibrates when there is something in your way. The instructors at the guide dog schools teach mobility for both use with a dog and a cane. Therefore, if I need to learn a new route an instructor from a guide dog school will come and teach me.

In the larger cities of Australia there are braille trails to follow along the streets, at crossings and at the top of steps. In the cities where there are shopping centers there are voice friendly lifts. There is also voice announcements within the train system.

All of our services and equipment are free of charge, provided by Vision Australia. Some of the services include; telli link club, sporting activities, and library services. Telli link club is a service in which Vision Australia connects people from all over Australia via the telephone free of charge. Such clubs include book, travel, support, and crossword puzzles.

They also offer a wide range of sporting activities. You can go sailing, lawn bowling, tandem bike riding, golfing, and swimming. There is also a group that goes skin diving. At least you wouldn't see the shark coming!

I am an avid lawn bowler. That is actually how I met my husband. I have traveled to other countries to take part in tournaments. I won a silver medal in the singles world championship. In New Zealand I won a gold in the mixed pair lawn bowling tournament.

As for reading, our Daisy Players now have wifi built in to them. So all we need to do in order to get and listen to a book, magazine, or newspaper is to Go to the Vision Australia book catalog online and click a button, and boom, it’s in the player!

If you are wanting to find employment there are companies that will help you find the appropriate job. Project Employment is the organization that helped me. I had several jobs, my most recent one before retiring was a switchboard operator at a financial insurance company. However, if you don't wish to work you still get paid from the government to sit on your bum.

There are lots of benefits you can apply for such as; half price taxi vouchers, a companion card; which enables your carer to go to Shows, movies, or use transportation free, and Disability/Blind pension.

I think Australia does a fantastic job in providing a variety of services for blind and visually impaired people.

August 2015

By Victor Chan

Back in the 1960s, Hong Kong, as a British colony, was under a ‘laissez-faire’ system. The Government provided very little social services to the public and hardly any to the blind and visually impaired children. For the blind and severe visually impaired ones who were over the age of 16, they could seek assistance from Hong Kong Society for the Blind. The organization was founded in 1956 and has become the principal, government subsidized, voluntary organization in Hong Kong that provided basic training in mobility and job skills.

The employment training was done at the Factory for the Blind. The factory was established in 1963 and since then had provided blind and disabled workers with sheltered employment. Initially, the factory had two main sectors-- Paper and corrugated carton Box Section and Sewing Section. The sewing section manufactured all kinds of industrial and school uniforms such as overalls, T-shirts, coats, windbreakers, caps, etc.

As far as education was concerned, there was no compulsory education requirement nor any restriction on child labor in Hong Kong at that time. There were certain amount of sighted children, mainly from low-income families, that did not attend school. One might imagine how low the priority was for the government to assist the visually impaired children to be educated.

Of course, I intend to give this story a very happy ending. In 1971, the government passed the 9-year compulsory education law. In the 1980s, the government had gradually provided and increased assistance to the senior citizens, children, and the disabled. Then, since 1997, Hong Kong has no longer been a British colony. The newly formed ‘independent government’ still preferred Hong Kong Society for the Blind to be the provider of services to the visually impaired. With the increase in government financial subsidies by then, a boarding blind school had been established. However, the school emphasizes more on training masseurs in traditional Chinese acupressure and massage rather than academic achievement. Also, the blind community has adapted to the white cane rather than the traditional red walking stick which is not foldable. Finally, the Blind Factory had increased its product lines and service area. For example, it has established a few call centers to provide out-Source services to the business community. Along with the expansion, more visually impaired persons have gained employment and independence in Hong Kong.

One area Hong Kong lack’s way behind in is the Guide dog service. With a visually-impaired population of roughly 170,000, Hong Kong has only 30 guide dogs - 14 of which have been trained or are still undergoing training by the group. Out of these 14 dogs, just four are currently being used. But there is high hopes in this area. Just in early July of this year, a new guide dog training center has opened. Before then, the group has trained puppies without a permanent base.

Puppies are brought to Hong Kong when they are just a few months old and placed with foster families - which the center screens carefully, then the puppies will have to pass a health test and an emotional test, before formal guide dog training commences. Training usually lasts between six and nine months, after which the dogs will be matched with owners, followed by 28 days of "matching training". Training begins in the streets for the dogs. First they are train in the quieter places like parks, then slowly to noisier and more crowded areas. Hong Kong has unique environments like wet markets. The smells of slaughtered pigs and meat will take training, but it is possible for the dog to get used to. Usually the guide dog will stay with the same owner for life.

September 2015

By Marina Gart
Soviet Union

I was born and grew up in the former Soviet Union. In 1970's and early 1980's, I attended a boarding school for the blind. At that time, for a blind child, going to a regular school was unheard of. Braille was the only essential blindness skill taught, at least in our school. Mobility, cooking, housekeeping were taught totally at random, on a whim, and often in hazardous ways. And since the great majority of students were partially sighted, none of those skills would be taught with a totally blind person in mind.

Regardless of school achievements, most of us knew our future was a sheltered workshop for the blind. Yes, there were some blind people who went on to receive higher education, but most of us, even good students, knew that pursuing college would be hard.

Sheltered workshops paid very low salary because the law limited the amount of money one could earn in addition to a pension. And we were all getting a monthly pension on account of disability. The pension combined with the salary would probably not exceed 10 US dollars. The only good thing - you would have a sense of doing something productive, bringing money into the family. There was an overall skeptical view of blind people's capabilities among both the sighted and the blind.

I knew of only one guide dog school in the country, and the waiting list for it was quite long. The two largest rehabilitation centers accepted clients through the referral from blindness organizations. The centers have performed amazingly well in helping blind and partially sighted people in learning essential life skills.

The blindness organizations fully paid or subsidized tape players or players/recorders for listening to the talking books from the library.

Computers and assistive technology were nonexistent. Even most sighted people didn't own a personal computer then, so the blind couldn't dream about Internet access or anything that comes with it.

We had a specialized store for the blind where you could buy primarily low-tech gadgets, canes, very good braille watches which I am using even now, a few adapted games, and braille books. The biggest braille printing house in the country would offer its books through the store. We had an option to order titles that interested us, and upon purchasing, the books were ours to keep.

Things seem to be drastically changing now. I hear that a number of blind people in Russia have computers with screen readers, digital recorders, and government-subsidized smartphones. But there is still very little belief in blind people's capabilities and very little awareness in society about blindness.

October 2015

By Sharon
New Zealand

Here is a Q&A I had with Sharon about living in New Zealand as a blind person.

Do they have schools for young blind children?
Yes "BLENNZ" is a school that caters to children and young people who are blind or have low vision and who are deaf blind. It is a school that is made up of a national network of services.

Did you go to a school for the blind?
Yes I did go to a school for the blind. Back then it was called Homai College but it has since had a name change and is now called “BLENNZ” Blind and low vision Education network New Zealand.

Were you in a regular school, and did they provide assistance?
Yes, while attending regular school I had great assistance. We had paid volunteer helpers who would accompany and assist us in each of our classes. They would for instance read things written on the blackboard, assist us in getting involved in class activities and basically be our eyes for us as well as encourage and motivate us to socialize or mingle freely with our other peers.

Is there a blind organization within New Zealand?
Yes. It is called the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind. It is an organization that provides such services as accessible equipment, mobility, and guide dog training to blind or low vision as well as deaf blind people in New Zealand.
This service provider does not offer job training, although there were a number of courses that they ran some years ago to teach blind people things like job searching and writing a curriculum vitae (cv). they also used role playing as practice for job interviews and so forth.
Now the organization has an emailing service where job vacancies are posted. They also have representatives who assist blind people in advocating for themselves when it comes to seeking employment.
All the other services mentioned above are provided by the RNZFB. For example, we have an equipment shop that can be accessed online at the official RNZFB website. The equipment services also holds a display every month I believe in various locations in New Zealand.
Mobility is another service provided by the RNZFB. There is an instructor that looks after different portions of New Zealand.
Guide dog services is also a provision by the RNZFB and guide dog schools are regularly run.

Are there vocational schools for the blind?
I wouldn't call it a school, but BLENNZ does provide a kick start service which helps blind or low vision people to make the transition from school to tursery, the workplace or independent living. They live in a flat supported situation and they are assisted by our adaptive daily living instructors to make those changes.

Is there a reading service?
Yes. The RNZFB'S library service provides information in a variety of accessible formats. There is also an online reading catalog where a user can search and download audio books and magazines. And the library also provides daisy players for those interested in using their library services.

Did you learn braille through the school or other services?
I learned braille at a young age at what was then called Homai College. I don't remember much about the experience because I had a lot of my sight at that time, but I know that's where I learned how to read braille.
In spite of the advancements in technology there is still a large demand for braille.

Is braille out there in the public?
I wouldn't say that braille has made a big deal here, but there is an awareness of it in New Zealand. The buttons on our electronic funds transfer at point of sale (EFTPOS) machines display braille. While the train and bus stations, have audio instructions.
There is a braille authority organization which was set up in 2010. Their responsibility is to maintain and increase awareness of braille usage, set standards of braille codes with current international developments and promote braille as the prime literacy for blind people.
So not really necessary to the public as such. As I said I believe people have an awareness as they do guide dogs.
The reason why the blind community is literate in braille is due to the efforts gone into promoting it. The organization mentioned above was set up for that very purpose. At times, regular workshops are held to inform of the new braille code and other changes. I believe many still struggle with it, not in terms of reading, in terms of personally producing it for themselves. So even though the code got its start in 2007, many are still trying to make the adjustment. At times classes and workshops are run as a refresher for any who need a brush up on their skills.

Are there any blind organizations for recreation?
Blind sport New Zealand Inc. is the sporting national organization provided here in NZ. It is a consumer group of the RNZFB.
Blind sport New Zealand Inc. is the sporting national organization provided here in NZ. It is a consumer group of the RNZFB. Various blind sporting clubs affiliate to this organization and regularly hold games such as blind cricket, hockey, and goalball to name some. They also sponsor sporting teams and individuals to achieve their goals. Blind indoor and outdoor bowls are popular here. Sporting clubs organize games and tournaments all over New Zealand on a regular bases. Goalball is also a big sport here and NZ has sent teams away to compete overseas. Same with cricket. Marathons are also being competed in by blind New Zealanders and overseas. So there is much support both financially and physically for blind sports here in NZ.

Is there assistance with transportation?
Yes, you can obtain a card which gives us half price fares for buses, trains, and taxis. And you can also obtain a disability card which allows us to park in invalid car parks but that is an individual choice.

Transportation and accessibility:
We have tactile strips at curbs with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Our traffic lights have audible indications that signify when to cross or not. I mentioned above that our bus stations have audio instructions. This means that some of our bus stations have a pole like a traffic light where when you press the button will give you instructions on what bus is coming and where it is going and how far away it is. This is most helpful and I think from memory there is a tactile strip that leads to it. Some of our EFTPOS machines talk but are without braille and some have braille but do not have audio cues.

More on equipment:
I mentioned above equipment services but I failed to say that blind people can obtain equipment with assistance from different organizations. The RNZFB fund some of these purchases and Workbridge is another organization that will fund equipment for those seeking employment and they will also provide financial assistance for those seeking employment or who wish to study in a tursery educational facility. Our work and income organization here provides weekly income benefits for those with a disability. Again for things like jaws or talks for Nokia phones the RNZFB provides that financial help.

Final thoughts?
The RNZFB is probably the biggest provider of services to blind and low vision as well as deaf blind individuals here in NZ with other most helpful organizations to tap into for that extra help. So yes New Zealand's blind and low vision and deaf blind communities are well cared for here in NZ.

November 2015

The Cook Islands and New Zealand (1960’s – mid 70’s)
By Kimmie Parutu

I was born in the Cook Islands. These islands are located in the South Pacific Ocean, northeast of New Zealand. There were no services offered to blind people. Actually, the blind people were shunned, and for the most part kept inside, hidden from the public.

A representative from the educational department informed my parent that there were many services available for me in New Zealand. So, at the tender age of 5 1/2, not knowing a word of English, and all alone I went on a boat to New Zealand.

I went to the Parnell boarding school for the blind. This school was funded by the Blind Institute, the New Zealand’s blind organization. The Parnell School included primary to intermediate grades. I was taught braille at a young age. They taught us to read braille using the two handed technique. I still read using this approach, which is very fast and effective. When I was seven years old, we were all taught how to use a standard typewriter. This was so we would be able to type out assignments for sited teachers in the higher grades.

In the early 60’s, the Blind Institute was gifted 52 acres of land near the Parnell school. They went ahead and built the Homai College. This “college” included grades 1 through 6. I attended this school in third grade, when it opened in 1964.

We had a very nice mobility instructor. She took us out to different places to learn how to identify landmarks, listen to traffic, and cross streets. When our mobility skills were mastered we were able to go to the corner store to purchase things. We were also taught how to travel using the buses. It was a great treat to ride the bus in order to visit the mall. Some students learned how to play an instrument. I sang in the school choir. We were taught how to play different sports such as baseball and cricket. We also learned how to cook.

It was during our final year of primary school that we were being prepared for intermediate school. There were three options for students once they reached intermediate age. They could go home, go to a local intermediate school, or continue on with the boarding school. Since I was a ward of the state, I completed my intermediate education at the boarding school.

I attended the “regular” local High School, named Manurewa (meaning bird in the air). I would walk to school and when done, walk back to the boarding school. This school was already familiar with blind students. We had our textbooks in braille, and had use of a braille writer and typewriter in school. We were also given a braille writer and typewriter for home use, so we didn’t have to carry them back and forth each day. The blind students would need to go in another room to take exams, because the braille writers were too noisy for the other students. I was part of the school choir and played the piano in the school orchestra.

Parnell was the major factor in deciding where your next step was to be. And, the choices were back at home, at the Parnell workshop, or in college. Most of the students with multiple disabilities continued onto the Parnell workshop completing tedious tasks. Unfortunately, back then, if you were from a poor family you were not encourage to go to college. As for me, I wanted to go to college and study languages. I was told that I couldn’t do that. Therefore, unhappily, I went onto the Parnell workshop.

At the Parnell workshop you were trained to perform a specific job. Some of the products I made for wages included stools, all types of baskets, prams (baby strollers), and different chairs. The men made larger items such as porch swings and mats made out of thick rope.

In 1971 the first guide dog school was built on the grounds of Homai College. Being the one and only in New Zealand, this was very popular.

Also built in 1971, in the same area was the Rehabilitation Unit. This was designed for people who lost their site later in life. They could come here to receive training in daily living skills and learn how to be more independent.

There was no blind sport’s organization while I was growing up. All the sports we were involved in were through the schools we attended. The favorite ones were field hockey, cricket, and softball. These games had some adaptations in order for us to play without unnecessary injuries to ourselves.

In the forties we did have a talking library, but nothing like it is now. This was more available to adults, than children. As I remember, it was a large heavy piece of machinery, with reel to reel tapes.

Accessibility of transportation was heavily dependent upon one’s own mobility skills. Back then, there were very limited number of audible street crossing and tactile markers. That was why it was so important, as my mobility instructor taught us, to listen to all noises, “look” for landmarks, and know your surroundings.

In the early 1900’s the Blind Institute was formed, and is now known as the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind. In the early 1920’s the Blind Dominion association for the blind (Association of blind citizens of New Zealand) was formed. This agency was created to be the “watchdog” for blind people. They would be sure that services were provided, work on policies & procedures, and advocate for the blind.

Blind citizens are able to receive social security benefits at age 15. If you were not born in New Zealand, you had to live in New Zealand for 20 years in order to receive the benefits. However, in 1974 a law was passed that change the residency from 20 years to 10.

In 1999 I attended the University of South Island of New Zealand. I was determined to get my degree in linguistics. I wanted to learn French and Spanish, and become an interpreter. However, I was once again discourage from pursuing this degree. Furthermore, the course materials were not available in braille. I did not leave empty handed though. I received a teacher’s certificate to teach English as a second language.

I will say that things have come a long way for blind people in New Zealand. There are a wide variety of services now available to blind people than when I was growing up.

Editor's note: Last month Sharon described New Zealand as it is currently. It is nice to see such a progressive change, and for the better.

December 2015

By Bianka Graeming

I was born in 1976 in Eastern Germany, formally known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). This was a communist state with 1 main ruling party and a totally different economic system. The state said how many products had to be produced, not demands.

In 1980 when I went to Kindergarten (nursery) it was still the time of the German Democratic Republic. In eastern Germany we had two schools for the blind, both were boarding schools. At one school, you were able to pass the A levels, and at the other, it only took you to grade 10, but also took kids with learning difficulties.

Since pupils came from all over eastern Germany it had to be boarding schools. Even though I lived fairly close, about 30 minutes car drive, I attended the school. At that time in the east there was no such option as to send the child to a regular school.

It changed after the reunification of Germany. At our school they saw the need to make more and more people travel home every day. If you lived approximately 40 miles away from the school, you were driven to school and home every day. I escaped that rule by telling them that I was in my first year of a levels. I added that we were asked to do homework and projects for school together with other classmates. By sending me home they would deny me the chance of doing this. My concerns were heard and so I didn't go home every day.

In grade 1 we all became members of the so called young pioneers. In grade 4 we became Thaelmann pioneers (state organizations run by the state). Of course this only happened if we behaved well. And, at that time we were proud to be part of this so we did as we were told.

*Every second Wednesday we had to do a particular activity we chose at the beginning of the school year. By doing this, they in some way kept us busy and gave us ideas of how to spend our free time.
*Braille was taught at school from first grade on. Just as others learned the regular letters at school, we learned the braille letters. By the time we had our first computers, we were in grade 9. In 1990, we had a few computers but they worked only without speech. So the teacher and assistants had to walk around the classroom and help us. In fact it was not a classroom, it was a computer room. I can't remember how many computers we had at that time. Only two years later we got our first pc with braille display and speech.
*As for mobility, it was also taught in school. We had lessons separately. Mobility included orientation, learning techniques, and routes.
*As for learning other skills such as cooking, we did get a glimpse of this as a group.

In grade 8 we became members of the Free German Youth. But 2 weeks later, in 1989, the change was about to begin.

On November 9 1989 the wall came down. All of a sudden we got the freedom to travel anywhere in the world which wasn’t possible under communist rule.
*Things also changed in the shops. Bananas for instance, were not a rare item you had to stand in line for anymore. Many products had a variety of choices to choose from, like butter.
*The different state organizations for students were no longer in place. The after school activities like the previously mentioned ones were no longer in place.

In 1990 Germany was reunited and now for us as well we had the capitalism. We learnt that supply and demand are the factors which make companies decide how much to produce.

After passing the a levels, I attended a special job training center for the blind. This was a residential center. I was trained to become an office worker specializing in office communication. This training took a total of three years to complete.

Once the education was over, it was time to search for a job. All in all, it took me one and a half years to find a job. I am working for the Mercedes-Benz company. We produce vans in my hometown. I work in the office. I deal with worker’s safety issues and do a lot of secretarial tasks. Unfortunately, there are many blind people over here who do not have a job. Employers are reluctant to hire blind people, because they think it is just a hassle.

In my spare time I travel a lot. This is fairly easy in Germany since we have the opportunity to get assistance for changing trains. The same applies to airplanes.
*The only thing I have seen here in my small town is a few traffic lights with sound. And, only recently have they implemented the announcements of the stations and busses. But again, in bigger cities these adaptations have been in place for a long time.
In the llarger cities where you find more blind people, there is more evidence of braille. For instance, in stations there is braille at rails leading to platforms.
*You also find different shapes of pavement for orientation.
*Lifts (elevators) for instance are marked with braille, so you know which button leads you to which floor.
*Restaurants accommodate blind people with menus in braille.
From what I have been told by several people, this is due to the fact that there is a strong blind association within the bigger cities.

We do have a talking book program, as well as books in braille. . We can borrow them for a period of time and then they need to be sent back before we can get a new selection. I believed this service is free.

In Germany there are many guide dog schools. As far as I know there is not one single organization like you see in the UK. And again, I only know the bits and pieces that others have told me, as I do not have a guide dog.

We have a couple of organizations for the blind in Germany. However, I am not a member of them. The organization in my Federal State in the past consisted of mainly elderly people and therefore I saw no need in joining.
To join the nearest one to me in a different Federal State was an idea, but in order to participate in their activities (for instance monthly meeting) I would need to travel. Berlin is the main capital of Germany and transportation there runs almost all night. But once you leave the Federal State of Berlin it looks different and my main task would be to check out the time so I would still make it home.

Well, I know many people who joined the organizations. They offer numerous spare time activities and group discussions on a variety of topics. To be honest, I am not sure how much they offer in the way of sports, school, and jobs. However, I do know that if you try to get assistive technology privately or for work, it is not the responsibility of the blind association.

The acceptance of blind people in Germany is dependent upon the area in which one resides. In small cities/towns, blind people for some reason are stigmatized. They assume that blind people are not only blind, but have some mental health issue. Furthermore, blind people are often asked; is she living in an institution? Has he been to school? And What can she do being blind? At least that is what I have experienced here in my small town. Areas where there are either blind organizations or educational institutions, the blind community is well received.
So you probably can see exactly what the difference is between the two. The larger cities, or cities with blind organizations in them, have more exposure to the blind community. Therefore, they are aware, and in a sense educated to what blind people can do, and to do it independently!