Eight year old Elfete
Entering the classroom is a relief. It is forty degrees celsius outside - energy sapping, lethargy inducing heat. The blinds in the classroom are keeping the sun at bay. It is cool in here and in contrast to the sweaty lethargy I am trying to shake myself out of, there is an atmosphere of industry in here. There are three children seated around a circular bright red table which holds various items including three Braille writers, a wooden contraption that looks like a small bench with circular holes drilled into it and pieces of card on which have been stuck raised shapes of different dimensions. One instructor, Shaip, is leaning over a student offering encouragement, while the other instructor, Xhafer is apologizing to us. Because of the intense heat, two of the students are at home sick. They really wanted to be here today, but instead he and Shaip have delivered their lessons to them at home.
This class is run by the Blind Society in Gjakova. Students attend classes three times a week and learn life skills, how to read and write Braille and also how to be independently mobile. Classes run for four hours on each school day, with an extra hour for lunch whereby the instructors ensure that the students are being provided with adequate nutrition in an effort to prevent unnecessary health problems and aid mobility. Both teachers were trained by experts from the Czechs Republic and are licensed by the Ministry of Education. Shaip, who is himself blind, has taught Braille for years in both Kosovo and in Belgrade, Serbia. As the two boys present in the class tap away diligently on their Braille writers, engrossed in their respective tasks, Shaip demonstrates for us how Braille is written by hand.
There are stages in these classes in terms of mobility and reading and writing Braille, and the students can all be at differing levels. First the teachers help their new students to develop sensitivity in their finger tips and interpret what they are feeling through the sheets of card with raised objects stick to them. The small wooden bench with six holes in it is used to teach Braille letters - wooden pins can be inserted or removed according to the formation of each letter. This is the next stage of learning Braille literacy. Eight year old Elfete is currently using this tool while she is learning the letters. Much more shy and unsure than the two boys in the class who exude confidence, Xhafer explains that she joined the course much later than they did. Having lived in a village and being kept in the family home completely isolated from society, she used to become extremely distressed about leaving her house and coming to the classes. She had previously had no contact with anybody outside of her home. Although she is still adapting, she has made a lot of progress. She no longer gets upset about coming to class, and is calmly learning to interpret the world around her through her finger tips. Being able to read will open up entire new worlds for her.
Once the students have learned to recognize letters and can write Braille by hand, they move on to using Braille writers…. a kind of clunky typewriter which punches raised dots in the corresponding places on the paper. We interrupt Sadik, a fifteen year old who has been studiously getting on with his work using his Braille writer, in order to ask him some questions in English, a language they are also learning during these classes. “What’s your name?” “Sadik” he answers. “How old are you?” “Fifteen.” “Where are you from?,” to which he proudly answers “Kosovo” before allowing himself a moment of glory as his instructors praise him for doing such a good job in this other language.
Once Sadik has returned to fastidiously typing out words on his Braille writer, Xhafer explains that the Blind Society has five hundred members. There is a higher percentage of blind people in Gjakova than elsewhere, yet there is no school for the blind here. These classes offered by Shaip and Xhafer are currently the only education available. They are currently discussing the possibility of their brightest students attending government school and doing their work in Braille, as there are no special needs classes in the public school in Gjakova either. In fact, there are only ten Braille instructors in the whole of Kosovo. If these classes in Gjakova were not running, there would simply be no education for these children and young people. They would likely be doomed to a life of seclusion and isolation as Elfete was before she began attending. Sixty percent of the funding for these classes comes from The Ideas Partnership. The rest comes from private donations.
These classes are designed to equip students to lead independent, fulfilling lives – so much so, that computer programmes based upon sound and talking smart phones are the final stage of education here. The instructors are so dedicated that in the past, if there was a funding drought, they continued on without pay, as they tell us that if Braille education is interrupted, sensitivity in the finger tips can be lost and the student will have to start again from the beginning – better to continue on as volunteers they say, rather than lose all the hard work they and the students have put in. Ideas Partnership funding not only means that the classes remain established and safe, but also that a curriculum can be developed and resources purchased.
The success of these classes is illustrated through both current students and alumni. Five previous students were awarded scholarships from a private university and have successfully attained bachelors degrees. They now have families of their own. One previous student is now employed as a translator, using a sound-based computer for his work. As for current students, Sadik is now beginning to walk on his own. A spinal injury compounded by other health problems meant that for years he didn’t move. The first time he stood up, taking his weight on his legs was in here in class with his instructors. This particular Blind Society group also held the title of Goal Ball champions (a football containing a bell) for two years in a row. Independence, education and sport, three things easily taken for granted, but without the Ideas Partnership, these students would likely have access to none of these things.
Teacher Shaip helping Sadik
The classes take place three times per week
Sadik has difficulties walking