Giggling slightly nervously, the teachers put on blindfolds and try to accomplish the tasks set for them - molding clay animals and arranging the wooden pegs in an out-of-scale Braille tablet. They struggle with the tasks - as Goran fully intends them to. "Braille is a way for blind kids to navigate the visual world on their own terms," he tells them. "You need to be able to give them that tool." Now more than ever, this is a desperately needed undertaking.
Not so long ago in Montenegro, if a child was blind or sight-impaired, he would either be kept at home by his parents or sent to a specialized school for the physically-disabled. But ever since Montenegro has adopted the concept of inclusive education, hundreds of blind and sight-impaired children have started to trickle into the mainstream schools. "That's why courses like this are essential," says Vera Mirkovic, one of the primary school teachers attending the two-day Braille training course, "We have to be prepared to help these children the best way we can."
The teachers are some of the 300+ school teachers from twenty-seven different primary schools in the Niksic region of Montenegro who have attended a series of two-day Braille education seminars designed to prepare teachers to teach Braille to blind and sight-impaired pupils, both now and in the future. The project is supported by USAID/DCHA and ORT America through the Persons with Disabilities Initiative, a program aimed at strengthening the delivery of essential social services to persons living with disabilities. The fact that there are now over 300 Braille educators seeded throughout the school system is a phenomenal success, and very meaningful for future blind pupils in the area.
The training courses are very timely - despite almost a thousand completely blind and twenty thousand sight-impaired people living in Montenegro, 95% of teachers in the school system are not trained in Braille. That means that blind and sight-impaired children have to struggle to keep up at school, and are overly reliant on other students reading to them or on electronic reading programs. There are only two Braille textbooks available at secondary school level: one dates back to 1976 and the other is a Serbian textbook that leaves out two important letters in the Montenegrin alphabet.
And although it is true that the advent of technology, with its electronic reading programs and computer applications, has seen a decline in the worldwide use of Braille, educators such as Goran Macanovic are adamant that knowing Braille is still the main key to independence within the blind community. "When I went to law school, I had to rely on a friend of mine to read me all the course materials, and in this way, I was able to prepare to sit my exams," he says, adding that the friend in question was in a wheelchair, so Goran would help him up the stairs to the main faculty building as a sort of quid pro quo. "But I didn't like having to rely so heavily on other people, so I began to learn Braille. I wish there had been textbooks in Braille during my time at college - it would have all been so much easier," he says.