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Disability and inclusion

“Blind people have little hope of finding a job”

by Lara Reiser, Sabine Balk

In depth

In many African countries, disabled children face a hard life: school for blind and visually-impaired children in Niger.

In many African countries, disabled children face a hard life: school for blind and visually-impaired children in Niger.

Twenty-one-year-old Lara Reiser from Marburg, Germany, has been blind since birth. She decided to participate in a volunteer programme for the disabled called “weltwärts alle inklusive”. She is spending 11 months supporting a school for the blind and visually-impaired in Bafoussam in western Cameroon and will return home at the end of July. In a phone conversation, she shared her experience with Sabine Balk.

Why did you go to Cameroon as a volunteer with “weltwärts alle inklusive”?

After graduating high school, I knew I wanted to study psychology and philosophy in the US. But the admission procedure is lengthy and time-consuming and I have to wait until 2016 before I can start. So I wanted to bridge the gap and do something meaningful at the same time. I didn’t want to do a volunteer year at home, however, I wanted to leave Germany. The school in Bafoussam was looking for volunteers, so I decided to go there.

As a young blind woman, weren’t you afraid to travel alone to Africa , to a totally unfamiliar environment?  

Everyone asks me that, and I don’t understand it at all. I’ve been blind since birth and don’t know anything else. I also don’t feel disabled. And it’s not true that I run into everything when I walk or that I can’t manage on my own. My parents and school did a good job of preparing me for life as a blind person in the world. I have no desire to sit at home. If I did that, I would be the only one missing out. I grew up and was raised in such a way that all doors are open to me. I ski and skydive. Besides, I spent two weeks on my own in Chicago in order to find a place to study. I managed just fine.  

Can you also manage well on your own in Bafoussam?

The district where the school is located is a disaster for blind people. There are no curbs, pavements or houses that could serve as the landmarks that we blind people need. There are ditches everywhere, which is very dangerous; many blind children have fallen in. What’s more, trucks drive every which way, and during the rainy season we are all knee-deep in mud. Despite all that, I manage very well, but the blind people of Bafoussam can hardly go anywhere alone.

What are your duties at the school for the blind?

I help the pupils in their Braille class. The pupils are children and young people between the ages of five and 21 who have never learned to read or write Braille. Nor have they learned basic arithmetic. I also do a lot of transcription work. I copy tests and other texts into Braille with the help of a Braille typewriter. In my school in Germany, we did everything by computer, but we don’t have that option in Cameroon. I also work with another volunteer who can see. She first had to learn Braille for herself.

How do you get along with the local children?

Now, we get along very well. At first I could hardly understand the French they speak here; it is very different from the French I learned in school. But there are also children who come to our school who can’t speak at all yet. We just admitted a six-year-old girl who could only make animal noises and had never been toilet-trained.

How does such a thing happen?

Unfortunately it’s not uncommon in Cameroon. No one ever paid any attention to the child. She probably spent all her time with the animals, and that’s why she couldn’t speak or use the toilet. Disabled children are still considered shameful here and are hidden from view. If a family has several children, they worry first about paying for their healthy children to go to school. The disabled child is sent to school last or usually not at all. It is really shocking when you experience. Experiencing such abuses personally, is completely different from reading about them. I don’t know what kind of future this child can have.

Probably a better one than the children who don’t go to school at all ...

Without a doubt. But I read once that children have most of their formative experiences in the first 12 years of life. This child has missed out on six years of development and has only half as much time as other children to develop normally. It will be difficult for him to catch up. The other frustrating thing is that, even when our pupils graduate from high school, as many do, they afterwards have hardly any chance of finding a job. Nobody wants to hire a blind person here. They have hardly any professional prospects and will never be able to provide for themselves and get ahead.

You sound very disillusioned ...

Don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s wonderful that this school exists and that blind and disabled people can go to university. But a lot still has to change with regard to how disabled people are viewed in Cameroon. And although the school does a great deal of good, the blind and visually-impaired children who come here not only have to learn reading, writing and arithmetic, they also need to receive psycho-social care after everything they have experienced. There is a lack of social workers and psychologists here. I can feel that I am reaching my limit. Nevertheless, I think that the work I am doing is very meaningful and I am glad that I decided to come here.

What will you take away from your time in Cameroon?

I realise now how lucky I was to be born where I was, and I appreciate everything we have in Germany. I no longer take it for granted that drinking water comes out of the tap, or that I have a washing machine and don’t have to wash my clothes by hand, or that I have enough money to buy myself something to eat. There are children at our school who are malnourished. I am coming back a different person. But it’s also important for there to be an exchange between Germany and Africa. That would maybe help dismantle certain stereotypes and cultural differences.

Like what?

The Cameroonians have a different relationship to money and property. The people have very little and think that, because we’re white, we have a lot. I am constantly being asked if I can give someone something or if I can leave my mobile phone here. On the other hand, the people here are so friendly and I have received such a warm welcome. It has been a wonderful experience.

 

Lara Reiser has been blind since birth and completed high school last year. The 21-year-old is currently working as a volunteer at a school for the blind in Cameroon.
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BU: In many African countries, disabled children face a hard life: school for blind and visually-impaired children in Niger. (Schytte/Lineair)

 

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