Though she has been sightless since the age of 12, Sabriye Tenberken has never lost her vision. She sees the needs of those who share her disability. In the late 1990s, the Bonn native, who was blinded by a congenital degenerative retinal disease, studied for a master's degree in Tibetology in her hometown. But there was no Braille alphabet for the 42 syllable characters of that complex Asian language, so she developed one in just two weeks. "It was a matter of necessity," she explains. "I had picked Tibet as the country where I later wanted to do development work. Because a Braille system didn't exist, I had no choice but to create one."
Clearly, the 34-year-old doesn't let herself get slowed down by what other people might consider obstacles. So it was only natural that she would take the new Braille system to the place where it was most needed: Tibet. Although widely regarded as a mountain paradise, Tibet has twice as much blindness per capita as the global average, due to high altitude and sun exposure. (The proportion of sightless Tibetans is 1 in 70.) Treatment there has long been hampered by the belief that blindness is a punishment for misdeeds in a previous life.
And so, beginning in 1997, Tenberken traveled the mountain country on horseback with a Tibetan health counselor, crossing treacherous passes and sleeping in yurts, which were often visited by rats. She was prepared for the rigors of the journey, but less so for what she discovered about the plight of Tibet's blind. "It was depressing," she remembers. "We met kids who had been tied to a bed for years so they didn't hurt themselves. Some couldn't walk because their parents hadn't taught them."
Appalled, Tenberken, with support from her Dutch partner Paul Kronenberg, a development aid worker she met in 1997 in a hostel in Lhasa (the capital of the remote Chinese autonomous region), rode to the rescue. She disentangled the reams of red tape the Tibetan authorities threw at her and finally, in May 1998, opened a boarding school for visually impaired children in Lhasa. "We faced a lot of prejudice and bureaucracy," recalls the woman whose name means "patience" in Turkish (her mom studied in Turkey in college). "Sometimes it was hell, but I enjoy challenges!"
Fifty pupils have been made welcome at the center, where they learn to read and write Tibetan, Chinese and English, and also receive vocational training. But their most important lesson is self-reliance. "We want to show the kids that they don't have to be ashamed of their handicap. We want them to stand up and say: 'I am blind, not stupid!'" she says. Tenberken has a typically straightforward explanation for her extraordinary drive: "Some people have more energy and temperament than others," she muses. "I happen to have a lot of both." And so she does: this spring, she and her organization, Braille Without Borders, launched a farm some 300 km from Lhasa, where blind adults are taught animal husbandry, forestry and vegetable cultivation. She wrote a book about her work, and soon she'll hit the big screen in a documentary called Climb Higher. The film follows her, Kronenberg and six teenagers from the Lhasa school as they accompany Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to summit Mount Everest, on a three-week climb of Lhakpa Ri, a 7,000-m peak north of Everest. Says producer Sybil Robson Orr: "This isn't just about mountain climbing; it's about proving to the world what blind people can do." Says Tenberken: "There should be no limits for the blind." She's proof of that.