The kind that operates quite out of sight.
Here I am with my cameraman Rodrigo, en route to the Thailand Association of the Blind (TAB) offices. We were producing a short movie to capture some footage of how to print a braille menu for the wine dinner happening Wednesday February 16th at Bed Supperclub (A Blind Affair). The concept of the dinner was to offer guests a blind fold experience during 1 course so they could enhance their other senses and appreciate – in our opinion – the dish and the accompanying wine. Part of the proceeds of the dinner will be distributed to the TAB.
Arriving at the gate of the building of the TAB, we are greeted by Khun Karn who liaises with Bed Supperclub for the dinner. She tells us "You are lucky, our president is in today, you can interview him". I acknowledge quite positively since I wanted to get first hand answers about the concerns the TAB are facing so that we could put them forward and create awareness.
We meet in a pared-down office on the 3rd floor. A man, probably in his early fifties, is seated behind a desk, he is visually impaired. We are being introduced in Thai, he gives me his card: K. Monthian Buntan. I barely notice the Senator title under his name. Actually I don't really pay attention to his card, as I was thinking to myself I did not bring any of mine, not to mention how he could have read the content of it.
Right then, as my camera operator is getting ready to shoot, I have my questions in front of me, we start chatting in English. K. Monthian has a perfect american accent. OK. I feel that some of my prejudice about blind people are about to fall. The following are excerpts taken from my notes and not the from the footage. Complete transcripts will come in a later stage.
Q: What is the mission of the association?
A: Simply put, we work "to change how people view blind people". The association works in promoting acceptance and respect towards blindness. We want society to stop looking at blind people in a peculiar way. We fight against prejudice, the idea that blindness is darkness and seclusion. Thailand is a charity based society, but we would like to promote positive action. Blind people have rights. In order to benefits those rights they need to register. We work so that as many blind Thais can have access to those rights. Recently we have succeeded in getting a law voted that allows free education through college for blind students.
Q: What is the population of visually impaired people in Thailand?
A: We do not have an accurate census of the population incapacitated by blindness. But according to some figures and estimation we can say there are about 600,000 people visually impaired. That is 1% of the total population.
Q: Given the data that you have, can you estimate the ratio of those living in rural areas versus urban areas?
A: Well, we can say that 20% live in urban areas and have access to rights, knowledge, work opportunities and assistance. Whereas, 80% live in the country side, in majority in total seclusion, because of shyness or shame they dare not get outside their house (or kitchen) to seek assistance or recognition. They are literally invisible.
Q: What are the challenges of being visually impaired in a country like Thailand?
A: There are still a lot to do with accessibility issues: city planning, architecture and of course the prejudice from the rest of the population itself. There needs to be harder campaigns promoting universal accessibility and issues such as corruption are giving hurdles in improving the footpaths and streets to make them blind-friendly. In terms of access to media, we need to get more done in the fields of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). We need to get more Speech Synthesizers in Thai available out there. There needs to be more blindness friendly products. More generally, blind people are not given the right opportunity to prove to the rest of society that they can contribute in doing something worthy. We need to eliminate discrimination.
Q: I am still living with the prejudice that blind people can only get jobs as lottery sellers or pianists. Do you have examples of blind people working and integrated in society?
A: Of course, blind people can be employed or self-employed. Some examples are: Radio DJs, lawyers, teachers, farmers, massage therapists, office secretaries and tele-marketers. Myself, I am a member of the senate, whilst taking care of the association.
Q: How many visually impaired people can read braille?
A: There are only 10% of the population that can read braille [same ratio as in the USA]. That makes an illiterate ratio of 90% which means there are tremendous efforts to be made in improving the education.
As I finish the interview, with a strange feeling of mind cleansing, I cordially invite the senator to the wine dinner. To which he accepts joyfully not without mentioning he is a wine amateur. We discuss briefly about training blind people to become sommelier, why not? He then remembers that Siam Winery provided the wines for an APEC summit not so long ago.
We then part ways and I continue filming the process of how to do the menu of Wednesday February 16th dinner in braille. Khun Karn the liaison lady shows me and my cameraman to a typing machine used to print braille characters on clear stickers. The operator, a blind lady, reads the menu from her laptop where a speech synthesizers translates the text in english to her ears (the speech is quite quick as in fast forwarding dialogues). She then types the keys simultaneously on a 6-key keyboard (there are 6 characters on a braille letter grid).
As we hop into a taxi, leaving the TAB building, there are 3 blind people in front of the car, holding hands walking one behind another in the narrow street. The taxi driver, mockingly, says to me "See that? How many eyes are there?" To which I reply: "There are 6 arms, 6 legs and 3 hearts". As his smirk went off his face, he engaged the gear and we slowly passed them.
During dinner, there will be two blind massage therapists, providing after dinner massages for guests.