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Golden Key to Brightness

“One, two, three, four ..... twenty-one, twenty-two! Great!”

A circle of children applaud and laugh, hailing their pal inside the circle who had just bounced a ball 22 times during gym class.

The pupil in the center, with a sweet smile on his face, slowly squats, stretches out his hands and feels the ground for his ball.

Wang Jianfeng, 11, has not been able to see since birth but he certainly can feel the elation of his classmates and teachers at the Yangquntan Primary School.

Wang began to study a year ago at Yangquntan in Xilin Gol League, located in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Although blind, he studies with his peers in a regular class. The only difference is that his books are printed in Braille.

Wang still remembers the days when he was unable to go to school.

“Everyday in the morning, I stood behind my home gate, hearing other children passing by on their way to school, talking and laughing so happily. How envious I was! How eagerly I wanted to join them!”

Wang was able to attend regular school with the assistance of the Golden Key Project.

According to Xu Bailun, the initiator of the project, most families in rural areas cannot afford to send their visually impaired children to special schools.

Xu was an architect before he lost his sight in 1971 due to a medical accident. He suffered a great deal in the following years, especially when his loving wife, Zhu Yitao, died in 1983. In 1985, 55-year-old Xu started to engage himself in the education of blind children and founded the “China Blind Children’s Literature.”

He launched the Golden Key Project in 1987, aiming to help rural children attend mainstream schools near their home by training local teachers in Braille.

After years’ of pioneering work in various towns and villages, Xu and his staff were able to experiment with the project in a larger school area in 1996 in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Between 1996 and 1998, Xu and his staff, with help from the regional and local education bureau, helped 2,145 visually impaired children attend primary school. They also trained 2,364 teachers to teach blind children.

In 1999, Xu started to introduce the Golden Key Project in Ulancab League, one of the poorest areas in the Inner Mongolia. Then the project spread to another three places, including the Xilin Gol League, in the region.

He estimates there are some 2,230 visually impaired children in Inner Mongolia. And only 20 of them are able to study in the only two regional schools for the blind.

So far, 697 visually impaired children have attended regular schools in their home villages.

The rural school teachers, most of whom have had no experience with Braille, have now become experts in learning and teaching Braille after a 15-day training course and one-year teaching experience.

The volunteer teachers have given blind children golden keys to open their life door in brightness, Xu said.

He You, a teacher at the Yangquntan Primary School, joined the project in May last year.

He spent the summer holidays teaching Wang Jianfeng Braille in his home. He also tutored Wang to help him catch up with other children when the new semester began.

Wang’s hard work earned him high marks in mathematics and Chinese in his first year.

“He is one of my best students, smart and diligent,” said He You. “To watch him come out of loneliness and darkness was very rewarding. I’d never seen Wang smile at home but now he smiles everyday! His smiles are the best gift to me!”

Just a year ago, nobody in the village believed that Wang could successfully attend classes like other children.

Some people called Wang “little blind boy” and some parents didn’t allow their children to play with him.

They began to change their minds when staff members promoting the Golden Key Project came to the village. They were told that a blind child has the right to study with other children.

Wang and He You’s efforts changed the way many villagers viewed children with disabilities.

The children who used to tease Wang apologized, He You recalled.

Knowing Wang could not afford the special thick paper needed to write Braille, people in the village collected their old calendars and cigarette boxes and sent them to his home.

“Seeing my child accepted by the people around him makes me happy,” Wang’s mother, Liu Guitao, said, wiping tears.

Xu and his colleagues have won much support from the local government.

The Inner Mongolia education commission invests 500,000 yuan (US$62,000) into the Golden Key Project every year.

In the past two years, the project has spread to three more prefecture-level leagues and cities, covering almost a third of the region.

According to Xu, by 2003, the project will reach the whole region, enabling at least 90 per cent of the visually impaired children in Inner Mongolia to go to school.

When He Chengbao, the director general of the region’s education commission, was asked whether it was worthy to launch this costly project, he replied firmly: “It is worthy of the investment! The meaning of Golden Key Project has gone far beyond leading blind children to brightness. This is a ‘golden key’ to demonstrate the progress of our society, to clarify the responsibility and meaning of our education and to open the door of happiness to all of us!”

(Xinhua News Agency09/05/2001)

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