October 2, 2008 / 7:04 AM / 10 years ago

Orphanage helps China's blind come out of the dark

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Many blind children in China, often abandoned by parents seeking “perfect” offspring or fearing social stigma, have few chances at a relatively normal life, but a Beijing orphanage is hoping to change that.

Located deep in the capital’s rural suburbs, Bethel orphanage caters especially for the blind and visually impaired.

The students, who would most likely receive little or no education in other orphanages, take lessons in everything from Chinese and English Braille to how to interact in society.

Bethel, which says it is the only orphanage dedicated to the blind, also provides training for staff at regular orphanages in how to deal with blind and visually impaired children.

While many of China’s blind go on to find work in the country’s countless blind massage parlors, Bethel’s schooling aims to prepare students for a variety of careers.

“This kind of school helps blind people in a lot of ways, for example they can study, and can come into contact with other people in society. So I think it’s very important,” said Li Ying, aged 19, and currently Bethel’s oldest student who came to the orphanage three years ago from rural Henan province.

Opened in 2003, Bethel, a licensed international charity which is run in conjunction with local Chinese non-governmental organizations, receives most of its funding from foreign, private donations and corporate sponsorship.

The orphanage is almost totally self-sustainable, growing its own food and raising its own animals on 17 hectares (42 acres) of land. It now has 35 children, the youngest aged a few months.

“The environment here is really good, and there are a lot of friends to play with, and I can learn a lot of things,” said He Chunbing, an eight-year-old student.

China’s authorities went to great lengths to improve awareness about the country’s estimated 83 million disabled in the run-up to, and during, the recent Paralympic Games.

But the stigma attached to disabilities, and poor facilities, remain pressing problems in the world’s most populous country.

Guillaume Gauvain, who founded Bethel with his wife, said misunderstanding and the one-child policy contributed largely to the abandonment of disabled newborns.

“In some areas blindness is still seen as a very dark thing, where maybe the child is a demon possessed, so they’re cast away,” he told Reuters.

“But in most areas it’s just because, especially since you can have one child only, you want a child who can either help the family by providing income or working on the farm, or providing for the parents later on. So since a blind child for them has no hope, they choose to not pursue that way.”

Many of the Bethel orphans go on to be adopted, with nine children leaving to families outside of China in the last year.

Li Suyun, one of the orphanage’s almost 60 employees, said students were given a solid foundation for the future.

“This place helps them a lot, in terms of their study and a suitable environment, and it is slowly developing so it should be able to help lots and lots of blind children,” said Li.

Writing by Max Duncan, editing by Miral Fahmy

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