A Cuban School for the Blind – full of promise for the future.

Saturday 1419 – 18 May 2013

notice on the wall

“It does not matter what the physical weaknesses of the men when their hearts sprout ideas just and noble”


Children finding their way down the corridor along the wallAs promised last week in my post “I’m not looking for Sympathy, Honestly… Well Ok maybe a bit” which you can read here, I am writing about a very special place in Havana that we visited on our way to the airport for the trip home. This is a long post because it is especially for the Traveleyes group but I hope my regular followers will stay with it to the end and enjoy it.

The place we visited was the Abel Santamaria School for the Blind.  

The school was named after Abel Santamaría, one of the martyrs of the Cuban revolution who helped lead the attack on Moncada Barracks, Santiago de Cuba, on July 26, 1953. Captured during the attack, Abel was murdered in prison after being brutally tortured. He had his eyes gauged out by Batista’s henchmen. After the revolution, all schools and hospitals for visually impaired children were named after Abel Santamaría in his honour.

We were going there because the Traveleyes company had visited during the last trip to Cuba and had forged some links which they hoped to strengthen. Our Traveleyes rep Lisa had carried a very heavy Brailler from the UK to present to the school. We also did a collection amongst the group. We were made very welcome and were allowed to take some photos, as you will see from them we were shown into several different classrooms and treated to a music concert at the end of our visit. Here are the photos from the visit and a bit of history for you too . For the visually impaired reading this I have tagged each photo with what I hope is a good description. Each photo can be enlarged by clicking on it and then left clicking on it again.

Little girl with a postcard sayin what she would write on it to her mother

little boy sticking seeds onto card

 boy writing in Braille

You will see below that the computer being used is a rather old-fashioned one but many of the Visually Impaired in our group were rather impressed that they had very up to date versions of JAWS (Job Access With Speech ) which is a computer screen reader program for Windows that allows blind and visually impaired users to read the screen.

teacher standing and student sitting in front of old style computer

Little boy reading to us from his Braille book

visually impaired teacher Education is free in Cuba as is health care. All of these children will be guaranteed a move on to further education according to their abilities and efforts are made to get them into main stream education. I was advised by the deputy headmaster that ALL will have work of some kind after school.  The school has several visually impaired teachers who once attended the school.

After the revolution in the late 50’s, which saw the demise of the dictator Batiste, it was found that, out of a population of 6 million, over 25% were totally illiterate with over 1 million of them adults. In May 1961 a Literacy campaign was launched. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the campaign is that the majority of the teaching was accomplished by 100,000 (mostly) teenagers who responded to the national call for youth volunteers and some 7 months later the illiteracy rate had been reduced to 3.9% and in 1964 a Unesco study declared it “the most successful literacy campaign ever undertaken” and Cuba now has a literacy rate of 99.8% ( UK and USA have 99%)

It has been argued by some academics that the teaching to read was limited only to literature that was in favour of the regime, in other words for propaganda, and that may well be true but once an individual can read it opens up many possibilities for them and is a great gift. I don’t profess to know a great deal about the politics of Cuba but I did find the people very warm open and friendly.

Of course there is some poverty, Cuba has had to live within its means. The country withdrew from both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank back in the 60’s and the withdrawal of Soviet Support in the 90’s and the ongoing US blockade continues to impact on the economy of the country with the International Development community not really involved with helping Cuba.

However the country also does not have billions of pounds of debt like most countries in the west who have borrowed to fund wars and extravagant lifestyles. If/when world economies crash would Cuba be largely unaffected by this?  I suspect it might.

During the Batista years the rich became very rich indeed and the poor very poor. Personally I have a lot of admiration for the efforts the Cuban regime has made to equalise society so that there is not an enormous divide between rich and poor. I think that can only be a good thing and the people of Cuba certainly did not seem oppressed to me. 

 Enough of me and my rather simplistic socialist views the final photos below show the concert which ended with some of the students pulling out members of our group to dance and the presentation of the brailler.

student members of the band

student members of the choir

Sally and Susan dancing with 2 of the students of the school

Jane dancing with one of the students

pupils, Lisa, Osmani and headmaster just after Lisa presented the Braille machine.

This was a very emotional visit for both VI’s and sighted guides and when one of the teachers spoke of not having enough canes for mobility work one of the Vi’s ( who I won’t name because she thought nothing of it and will be cross with me if I do! ) spontaneously gave the cane, she said she rarely uses, to the teacher. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house amongst those of us who witnessed this act of kindness.

I will finish with a quote from Santiago Borges, head of the Latin American Reference Center for Special Education in Havana. In 2011 he said “inclusive education is a sign of an inclusive society, one that makes essential services accessible, and also respects diversity and accepts differences.” Amen to that !!

Keep an eye on Photomania, link below, for more photos from Cuba and see you all next week.

You can find my photography blog Photomania here