Under-equipped but overachieving
Against the odds, blind students reach the top crop of Myanmar pupils.
LAST week, two totally blind and two partially sighted students at the Kyeemyindine School for the Blind passed the matriculation exam with flying colours. Out of around 2000 candidates in Kyeemyindine exam centre, just 11 managed to obtain several distinctions, four of them were visually impaired.
“My parents are happy with my achievement,” says Htin Lin Aung, a chubby young man with a charming smile. “My eldest sister is still boasting about me in my native town.” He can. Htin Lin Aung graduated with honors in history, geography and economics and the matriculation exam is serious business in Myanmar. In fact, for the youth, it is a turning point. The grades that one gets decide which university one can enter.
Htin Lin Aung was born blind. He grew up in a tobacco firm in Pauk, Magway Region where his father worked. Getting around the factory was easy, he just adapted to his environment. But sometimes, his environment did not adapt to him. Getting into a school, notably, was a struggle. “The school in my town did not have a system or the necessary resources to teach me,” he says.
In 2007, a program about the Kyeemyindine School for the Blind was broadcasted on TV and his parents saw it. They immediately called their elder son, who was working in Yangon, to inquire about the school.
A few months later, Htin Lin Aung was dressed in green and white, studying. At 12, well in his teenage years, he started from scratch. He had to catch up with the curriculum and he also had to learn Braille, a system that enables blind people to read by sensing letters with their fingers.
Kyeemyindine School for the Blind provides primary education, secondary and high school for blind students. It hosts over 150 students. They come from all over the country, and board in the school. Blind students study with sighted students in government-run schools in Kyeemyindine township after primary school.
After school, they finesse their Braille reading. Sometimes, they indulge in an audio book, their preferred medium. Audio books, unfortunately, don’t help getting better at Burmese and English grammar, sighs Htin Lin Aung.
Conditions at Kyeemyindine are good, but not ideal. Built in 1914, the school is under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. But its finances are dire. Braille books are expensive and the school hasn’t had enough of them for each student.
Besides, not all content is adapted for the blind. Some topics are out of reach. “Biology which has a lot of pictures,” laments Ye Htet Naing, another visually impaired who reached the top of the crop this year.
The school is expecting a lot from new technology. Now that everybody is connected through cheap smartphones, new possibilities will open up.
Blind leading the blind But the reform of the Burmese education system is going as fast as the smartphone revolution and the blind students are not spared the worst aspects of Myanmar’s awful education system. Like all students, they have to painfully re-study what they studied in class, after school through a parallel system of tuition class.
The matriculation system the brave students excelled is atrocious. It consists of filling blanks learned by heart in textbooks. It is also unfair. University are not chosen on the basis of interest, but grades. Miss your target by a notch and you can kiss good bye to the career of your dream. The top performers are sent to med-school, whether they like it or not.
Throughout the system, little creativity is required and rote-learning is the rule. The government has promised to inject of good dose of critical thinking in the matriculation exams in the years to come.
But for now, people just have to regurgitate knowledge and follow instructions, blindly.
Blind students at the Kyeemyindine Blind School, Yangon, June 8, 2018.