‘The Disabled Must Also Benefit from Development’

By Aung Thet Htwe 10 June 2015

In the final days of eleventh grade, just a month before the matriculation exam, a life-threatening accident changed the course of Reverend Thein Lwin’s life forever. While conducting an experiment in the school’s laboratory, a chemical mixture exploded in his grasp, severing his left hand and blinding him in both eyes. He spent 18 months recuperating in hospital.

Despite his disabilities, he went back to school and graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1974, and the reverend now heads the Myanmar Christian Fellowship of the Blind, one of the eight formally recognized education institutions for the disabled in the country. The fellowship has two officially recognized schools, one in Rangoon and the other Myitkyina, with three smaller schools also operating across the two cities. The fellowship admits students of all faiths from across the country, last year admitting 149 students at its flagship school in Rangoon.

According to the 2014 census, 4.6 percent of the country’s population are afflicted with various disabilities. The Irrawaddy recent paid a visit to Thein Lwin to ask about the challenges facing the fellowship and its students.

How did you come up with the idea of founding this organization?

While attending university for my master’s degree. In August 1975, me and 13 others founded the organization. I was supposed to finish my thesis in 1979 but decided to turn a blind eye to it and work full-time at the organization. We started teaching six middle school students in 1979. The government schools did not allow the disabled students to continue their education after the elementary level prior to that academic year.

What difficulties did you face in the beginning?

When we founded the school, we did not have enough money to fund the full-time teachers. So we had to find volunteers. We did not have a classroom of our own. We had to teach the students in the living room of someone else’s house. Sometimes when guests visited the house, we’d have to teach under the shade of a tree. That’s how we went.

In the beginning, although we had a place, we had to buy rice, oil, salt, onion—just about everything, including kerosene, at the outside price. During that period, there were two prices, the cooperative price designated by the socialist government] and the outside price [the more expensive, unofficial price on goods]. We got nothing with the cooperative price because the government did not recognize us.

The government recognized the school in 1991 and our organization in 1992. After that they started providing annual funding and this year we received 109 lakh (US$10,000). It costs us around 25 lakh ($2,300) per month for food alone, excluding healthcare, clothing, learning aids and salaries for the teachers, so it’s really difficult.

What difficulties are the students themselves facing?

The students face problems in coming to school because they have to travel from so far away. The teachers have to work for this job for a meager salary. The school gives them training for teaching. For students, even riding a bus is a problem. It’s worse in the rain. Some people push past blind people to get on the bus and conductors jostle them when they are getting off.

What type of improvements do you think are needed in your school?

We still need the involvement of other people to help solve the problems our students face when they go to school, and to help them find employment after school. We have not been able to give necessary pre-training for their careers. We still need to work on getting the students to become more knowledgeable and educated. We only have a small library. Although we have an online library, it has not been able to achieve its potential due to the slow internet connection.

Will it be difficult for the blind to cast the vote in this year’s elections?

The Union Election Commission (UEC) now understands that they will have to arrange for the disabled to be able to vote, after disability rights groups met and negotiated with them. We have prepared to go to the polling stations, show our identity cards and take anyone we like inside the station to vote on our behalf, which is legal according to the law. We no longer need the permission of the head of the polling station like before. For other members of the disabled community, the UEC will have to make plans to help them come to polling stations with wheelchairs.

Do you have any message for the government and the people of Burma?

Now that we know the number of disabled people from the census, it’s important to not leave behind the disabled as we try to develop our society. We, the disabled, must also be the ones that benefit from development. The government needs to lend a hand to us and the disabled must also work for the country. That’s all I would like to say.