This is my interview with Edit Hári, educator of the National Institute for Blind People.
Strolling around Városliget and passing the Institute, I have often wondered how life could be for the blind. Are they like us? Or are they completely different? How hard can it be for them to be in a constant need for assistance? An acquaintance of mine and theirs, Edit Hári answered my questions.
How did you first come into contact with blind people?
The whole thing began back in my childhood. I was attending high school when my father gradually lost his sight. He should have had to use a white cane but he refused out of vanity, which in fact is quite typical of blind people in general. So, he went blind and my sister also became visually impaired: this established my concern for the blind. Besides, I was always one of the charitable types who wants to help people.
How did the idea occur to you to actually work in the National Institute for Blind People?
This is an interesting story. I graduated in music and was the singer of a professional band for 17 years in Debrecen. When I returned to Budapest afterwards, I started wondering what I could do as a 40 year old woman. My children went to primary school at the time, and at one point I realised that we always passed the Institute on our way home from their school. The idea just came to my mind to check if they had a vacancy, and I was quite surprised to find that they actually did. Since I was qualified as a teacher as well, I immediately applied for the job. I was a teaching assistant for 3 years while I did my special needs teacher training, and I’ve been working there as a tiflopedagogist (a teacher of the blind) ever since.
What exactly is your job there?
I hold workshops, rather than lessons, teaching the blinds how to do everyday routine tasks ranging from tying shoelaces through cooking or dusting to holding a pen. It is unbelievable, but recently blind people have to do some administrative tasks like everyone else, such as paying bills, for which they need to learn how to sign a document. In most cases it is extremely hard, since there are lots of 30-40, even 50 year old adults in the Institute, who have never in their entire lives held a pen.
You worked as a teacher in regular schools as well. What are the main differences in the way you teach healthy and blind students? What skills can you think of that are more important when treating the blind?
Patience. An awful amount of patience. The pace of the classes is much slower, you have to explain everything several times, what to remember, what to be careful about. It is crucial to emphasise the important points over and over again.
Since you have been living among blind people for years, you definitely can help them a lot. Do you think the average passer by knows the right way of helping? Do they need our help at all?
Oh yes, yes, they do. The most important thing is to speak to them. You should address them first so they know you want to help them. If you grab their arm right away, they get frightened or angry. Noone likes to be touched by strangers without reason, nor do they. You should tell them politely you’re there to help them, you might even ask them where to hold them: at their shoulder or their elbow. Yes, some blinds may send you away grimly, but that’s probably the result of exactly this: people always touching them without a word: it can get quite frustrating.
There are some facilities, games and programmes that give us an insight into blind people’s lives, like Ability Parks and the Invisible Exhibition. Do these really make healthy people realise how hard life can be for the blinds?
Of course, since these make people sympathise with them immadiately. After experiencing for themselves what it is like to suddenly lose their sights and to have to rely on their other senses, being clumsy and defenseless, people realise the gravity of the situation.
Which do you think is worse: if someone is born blind, or if s/he loses sight later in life?
Without doubt if somebody goes blind due to an illness or in an accident; for them it is much harder to accept that they cannot see anymore and to teach themselves to manage without vision somehow. These people are usually in deep depression, since it is a huge trauma in their lives. Just imagine that something happens after which you suddenly don’t see anything anymore. Who is born that way handles the problem naturally, it is much easier for them.
How do these people react to being treated as not part of the „normal” society?
Since they get used to being blind, they don’t really have problems with being discriminated either, they think it’s quite normal, as they don’t have any other kind of experience. Those who lose sight after years of seeing eveything clearly find it very hard to walk around with a staff since they don’t want to proclaim that they can’t see. This is a serious problem, because this way healthy people cannot realise that they need help. But at the same time, they really want to assimilate to the healthy society, which is hard because other people simply don’t accept them.
Well, I think they have an extremely hard job to manage in Hungary, compared to some Scandinavian countries for example, where every single building is designed so that it is easily accessible by the disabled. Is Hungary on the way at all towards making the cities like that?
Yes, the process has already begun. They proceed very slowly with it though, since we don’t have much money for anything nowadays, but it has definitely begun. There are guiding lines on the pavements of busy roads or junctions, more and more traffic lights have a public address system installed to inform the blinds when they can cross the roads, and all the renovated metro stations have the information tablets written in Braille as well.
How is the value system of blind people different from ours? Do they care about appearances?
Those who were born healthy, pay a lot of attention to what they wear. We even have a young lady who dresses according to the latest fashion. She regularly comes to the teachers’ office to ask somebody whether her shirt matches her tights, or if her hair is nice. Of course not everybody is like that. There are young students who don’t care about clothes at all, but you can’t know if it’s because of financial problems. And the elderly are already beyond this hype, as healthy adults above 40 usually are.
Do blind people have dreams? Of what sort?
Wow, what a great question! It was actually the very first thing I asked them when I got to the Institute. The thing is, they do dream, but these dreams don’t include images, but scents! And even colours. One boy said to me, he thinks he just dreamt a sweet, fragrant red. He was probably thinking of an apple, and since he knows subconsciously that apples are red, he somehow connected the smell and the colour. They even make connections between colours and temperature. One time I gave a red book to a blind boy and asked what its colour was. He touched it several times and said it was red. He explained that he felt it to be warm, that’s how he could tell the colour.
As a last question: To whom would you recommend working with blind people in the Institute for a while? What can we learn from them?
For one thing, you can learn how to be patient. But I would also send in people who I want to teach to be organised and orderly. I became a bit of a cleanliness maniac myself. I had to learn to put away everything from their path, not to let them fall or stumble in a chair on the corridors. What is more, you always have to put every object back in the same place so that they can find them. Another important thing for them is having conversations, so people who work with them have to be talkative and inquisitive. You learn to become a very good listener among them.