Observation of Orientation and Mobility Lesson in Thailand

Excerpted from "Diary from the Orient"

November 20, 2006
The biggest event happened today – observing the training of blind people learning to travel independently at a center for the blind here in Thailand. After traveling in more than a dozen countries, this was a first for me. Before I tell you about that, I need to tell you about our travels yesterday with Nu, another O&M specialist, because that is when I realized some of the difficulties of getting around Bangkok.

When Mom and Dad and my brother Dave and I were here 43 years ago, we were struck by the apparent disregard for safety and life. Traffic fatalities were common, when buses pulled over to pick up passengers they often didn’t even bother to stop and, when the buses were crowded, passengers would hang off the bus from the door. People crossed busy 6-lane streets one lane at a time, standing on the lines between the lanes looking for a break to get to the next lane.

In that regard, very little has changed. I didn't see people hanging off the buses, but as Nu and Stephan and I waited for the buses, we’d laugh as we watched them approach to see if they would stop. Some did, but many merely slowed down while passengers jumped off and then, while the bus still rolled slowly forward, other passengers grabbed a bar inside the door and pulled themselves into the bus and then WHOOSH! Without ever stopping, the bus picked up speed and dashed off to the next bus stop (or bus “slow-down"!). Nu was surprised and disappointed to learn that it may be unique to Thailand, as I haven't seen buses do that in any other country, including China. Later, as we grinned and prepared for the adventure of jumping off one of the buses, I suddenly wondered what would happen if someone was trying to get on or off but fell under the bus, and I asked Nu if people get injured or killed in that way. She somberly said yes. As I got off while the bus kept going, a mother with her young son was getting ready to jump off too – they made it fine, but for me, the fun adventure had turned into something serious.

[NOTE WRITTEN APRIL, 2008: I just found out from Nanta Rattanagoses that about a year and a half or two years ago -- about the time that I was writing the Diary -- a blind man was killed getting off a bus. The bus was moving as he got off, and when he fell the bus ran over him. Nanta, who is also blind, became afraid to use buses after this happened, and now she takes a taxi or gets a ride.]

Anyway, it was in view of those experiences, as well as seeing sidewalks crowded with stalls and people and broken pavement, huge construction holes not covered or barricaded, and curbs that suddenly jut in and out, that I prepared to follow two intrepid blind men on their O&M lesson.

November 22, 2006
[Being able to speak some Thai] opens up experiences that we otherwise wouldn’t have. For example, using our Thai skills, the dictionary, drawings, and gestures, Stephan and I had some delightful conversations with Chalam's wife, who doesn’t speak English. In fact, it was my mastery of Thai (plus my handy dictionary) that got me through the O&M lesson Monday. I could understand what people in the market said to the blind travelers ("Pai nai?" which means “Where are you going?” and "Left! Left! LEFT!") and I was able to ask questions of Somchai, one of the O&M specialists. AND more importantly, I could even understand his answers! There was one time I had to look something up, and being able to understand what he said gave me some insight into the lesson. It was when one of the students started to veer into a stall, and Somchai guided him back out. I asked (in Thai) “Would he have been able to do it himself if you didn’t help?” I had to look up one of the words in his response (“laa”) and it meant “lag behind.” So I was able to realize that he had helped him out (and made him miss an opportunity to problem-solve) not because he thought the student was incapable, but because the student was getting too far back from the other student – one of the drawbacks of having two students at once.

This is probably a good time to talk about that lesson. The blind travelers had to walk along a little lane with no sidewalk to the bus stop, take the bus to a busy street, walk along a cramped sidewalk with a market with lots of stalls till they reach the post office, buy a mailer, and then get some popcorn in the market on the way back, locating the stall by the smell. There were two students, and two instructors, Somchai and Prasop.

The students handled everything well, including the bus. Buses in Thailand have a ticket person collecting fares, and they asked her (as well as other passengers) to announce the stop. The ticket lady forgot, as usual, but one of the passengers told them when to get off (Somchai said that when everyone forgets to inform them of their bus stop, he doesn’t interfere, and lets them problem-solve).

They got assistance to get on the bus (and it DID stop for them!) and had no trouble getting off (again, the bus stopped) and also worked their way through crowds and narrow ledge of sidewalk very well. As I said, there was no opportunity to problem-solve or figure out what to do if they got lost, and the instructors initially helped them across the streets rather than have them practice getting assistance (even the side streets here are very difficult to cross, usually filled with slowly moving or idling cars and motorcycles – if I were traveling there blind, I’d probably get help!), but later in the lesson the instructors didn’t intervene, and the students solicited aid very well.

In the beginning, when the cane of one of the students went over the curb, he didn’t seem to notice, and stepped off abruptly. After 4 or 5 incidents like this, however, he started to notice it, and negotiated the curbs gracefully. So I was able to see a nice progression of skills in the crowded streets of Bangkok. We had a very nice discussion afterwards with the students and instructors. The students said that before the training, they had no idea they could do anything, and now feel that they can do anything.

The O&M instructors told me about two deaf-blind people who are at the center. They are apparently extremely hard of hearing, and can understand if someone yells into their ear. The instructors asked me for ideas to work with them. As it is, because of the communication problem, they will be unable to participate in the massage therapist vocational training. I wasn’t able to help much with the little time I had, I hope they can talk with Nu, who did her O&M internship with deaf-blind people under Gene Bourquin at Helen Keller National Center.

However, I did tell them about assistive listening devices, which have made the world of difference for many of my clients who are very hard of hearing – some of them have almost cried to find out how well they can communicate with family, friends and even strangers, even in crowded noisy, restaurants and at lectures and places of worship. The instructors said the center would never be able to afford to get one, even though they are only about $200. I thought about it a little, and then said that my husband and I would like to donate an assistive listening device to the center (Fred, thank you for helping me make a potentially huge difference to someone across the world!). I am negotiating right now with a company in Silver Spring to see how they can get it shipped to Thailand – they have never shipped to anywhere around here before, and it hopefully will be something that will open eyes of the Thai people to what is possible.

[February 8, 2007 -- Chalam Yam-iam sent an email message saying that the young deaf-blind man can hear better with the pocketalker assistive listening device. Chalam said, “Now he can hear customers who are talking with him. It means .... he can work now!”]

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