From Vietnam: The Amazing Story of 30 Blind Students

Photo by Nguyen to Duc Linh
Students at the Warming House (Thien An) school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The school serves 30 blind students, led by Principal Nguyen Quoc Phong.

This story of a visit to the Warming House, a school for 30 blind students in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is written by Nguyen to Duc Linh. She is personal assistant to Grace Mishler, a program volunteer working in Vietnam through the Church of the Brethren Global Mission and Service. This article is edited with help from Betty Kelsey, a member of Mishler’s Mission Support Team:

On a sunny day, a group including a professional social worker, two assistants, and a fourth-year social work student from National Vietnam University of Social Sciences and Humanities, paid a visit to the Warming House (Thien An). The school is a spacious five-story house in Tan Quy Ward, Tan Phu District, in Ho Chi Minh City.

We were warmly greeted by the school’s headmaster, Nguyen Quoc Phong. The room we met in on the ground floor looked much like a living room. The area displayed awards, trophies, and medals that Principal Phong and his students have achieved in Special Olympics sports competitions in Vietnam and abroad. The medals and awards sparkle as they proudly show the great pride felt not only by the principal but by all the students as well. These awards are reminders of much hard work over the years.

We shared with Mr. Phong the purpose of our visit, and he was glad to give us a tour of the school. The center we visited is new, built four years ago. Cost of construction was solicited by Mr. Phong and his friends and funded by national and international nongovernmental organizations.

Photo by Nguyen to Duc Linh
Shelves full of books at the Warming House school display the marvelous achievements of Principal Phong and professors who, after many years of research, have translated textbooks, the Bible, and other legal and educational resources into Braille.

Next to a massage room was the book room, which displayed the marvelous achievements of Mr. Phong and other professors. After many years of research, these professors translated textbooks, the Bible, and other legal and educational resources into Braille. Mr. Phong proudly told us that the school is the pioneer in research software, converting texts from Word format to Braille letters. With this software, teachers can transfer books, course materials, and exam questions from Word into Braille for blind students. Conversely, visually impaired students can do their homework in Braille and then transfer it into Word format. This vitally important improvement not only reduces the burden on teachers but also promotes the integration of visually impaired people into community and higher education. Principal Phong noted that visually impaired students study at general education schools for sighted students and receive equal treatment as do other students.

The mobility of the visually impaired students surprised us. When a student entered the book room, a staff member informed him, “Professor Phong is talking with visitors right now.” The student, who had just returned from the university, turned and said, “Hello,” to us. We did not realize he was visually impaired. Students run, use the stairs, and find their way around their environment without tripping, as though their eyes can see.

Photo by Nguyen to Duc Linh
Braille markings on handrails (shown here) as well as distinct patterns on the first or last step of each stairway help blind students navigate the staircases and identify floor levels at the Warming House.

Nguyen Thi Kieu Oanh, one of the first visually impaired students to graduate, came back as a teacher, following in the footsteps of her headmaster. Ms. Oanh shared how all the equipment and furniture in the school must be put back in its location after use so the next person can find it. It helps their mobility and orientation. Students remember and visualize the location of each piece of furniture, room, or corner in the school like a map. In addition, on the first or last step of each stairway, the surface of the step is designed so students know how to handle the next step. The handrails of the stairs have clear symbols marking which floor they are on.

We visited a classroom where students were doing homework. Two students were working on math exercises, some writing essays, and others engrossed in reading books about computer science. They worked so hard and passionately, we did not hear a noise or giggle from anyone. Watching a student focused on carving out letters on Braille paper, I asked, “How long does it take to remember each letter simply by using your fingertips?” He told me it took him two months to memorize the letters and another month to put letters into words.

Photo by Nguyen to Duc Linh
In the music room at the Warming House school are various musical instruments, including this new type of piano the school purchased from Singapore. Sound settings such as flute, a river flowing, and vehicles serve the needs of school performances.

The next room was a large, spacious music room with various musical instruments hanging on the walls. Mr. Phong demonstrated a new type of piano the school purchased from Singapore, with sound settings such as flute, a river flowing, sounds of vehicles, etc., to serve the needs of school performances.

I chatted with an older student who was playing piano. He said his hometown is far away, but people told him about the school and Mr. Phong. Coming to Ho Chi Minh City and enrolling in the school, he can continue to develop his artistic abilities.

The most impressive thing to me was the abundance of books at this blind school. There are shelves of books in every room in the school–living room, reading rooms, computer room, dining room, and bedrooms. Professor Phong encourages a spirit of reading in all his students. There are basic textbooks, advanced textbooks, reference books, computer science books, Braille books on national laws and policies related to disabilities, the entire Bible, and famous novels–all in Braille. Visually impaired children find it difficult to explore our beautiful world, so Mr. Phong wants them to “see” the world through books, recorded tapes, and talking books.

As we walked into the computer lab, groups of students used computers for homework. The room is modern, spacious and airy with 20 modern computers available around the room. Principal Phong introduced us to a visually impaired student who is in his second year at the College of Mathematics and Information Technology. He was one of five students from Thien An school enrolled in university. Like Kieu Oanh, this student’s desire is to finish university and return to the school to help teach with Principal Phong.

The school has a prayer room for the Christian students. Every Saturday a local priest comes to celebrate prayer and offers a spiritual message to these students.

In addition to being integrated into society, the school also teaches everyday chores like washing clothes, cleaning house, washing dishes, cleaning rooms and bedrooms, and mobility training with a cane on Saturdays, if needed.

Before we left, Mr. Phong suggested that we sing a song together. You can sense that love is not “somewhere out there,” but is budding right here at this school, in this small room, where people are visually impaired but not handicapped. The rose of Thien An school is scented with the strong vitality of life.

— Nguyen to Duc Linh is personal assistant to Grace Mishler, a program volunteer working in Vietnam through the Church of the Brethren Global Mission and Service. She wrote this story and also took the photos of the Warming House / Thien An school.