| Above and beyond |
|Part one - Seven success stories|
When Stephanie Cox and Del Friedman, a husband and wife team from the Boston suburbs, left for their assignments in Nepal, they had already mapped out a secondary activity for themselves. They were going to train local people to repair braillewriters (or braillers as they are commonly called in the U.S.), the machines that emboss braille dots on paper for the blind to read.
Cox' interest was natural. Having just completed her doctorate in Special Education, she went to work with the Nepal Association for the Welfare of the Blind (NAWB), visiting schools around the country and consulting on special programs for visually impaired students. For seven years prior to joining the Peace Corps, she had been a teacher and administrator at the Perkins School for the Blind, where the leading braillewriters used throughout the world, the Perkins Braillers, are manufactured by the Howe Press.
Friedman's interest was less obvious. In contrast to Cox, Friedman had neither experience in teaching nor in special education. Formerly a manager of a computer company, his Peace Corps assignment was to teach computer programming to staff in the evaluation unit at Nepal's Ministry of Education. His wife's experience in teaching blind people, however, had piqued his own interest. He felt it was especially important in Nepal to help them because of the unusually high percentage of the country's population who suffers from cataracts and vitamin A deficiency, the leading causes of blindness. With his engineering background and mechanical aptitude, he was the perfect candidate to learn how braillers are put together.
Before she left for Nepal, Cox spoke with the former Director of International Services of Perkins School, Larry Campbell, about her Peace Corps assignment. One major obstacle, he told her, to teaching visually impaired students in Nepal would be finding enough braillers in working order to produce materials they could read. Another colleague, who had taught in Thailand, said how frustrated she had been trying to teach students without a working brailler and no clue how to fix it. She felt they needed a good operating brailler more than any teaching advice she could give them.
Having had discussions with Peace Corps about a possible cooperative program, Campbell thought that Cox's and Friedman's assignment to Nepal was an excellent opportunity to test his ideas. Together with the two prospective Volunteers and Leon Murphy, the repair training supervisor at Howe Press, they worked out an arrangement to have Cox and Friedman take some training in brailler repair before they left for Nepal. Under Murphy's tutelage, Cox was given a basic, 12-hour course in cleaning and adjusting the machines, while her husband was given a complete 40-hour course on the repair and maintenance of Perkins Braillers.
Once they arrived in Nepal and started working as Peace Corps Volunteers, they began putting their training into practice. As Cox began touring the country, she found that most of the approximately 30 Perkins Braillers in the 21 programs and special schools for the blind operating countrywide needed repair. Each time she came across a broken brailler she brought it to Friedman for fixing.
Friedman and Cox, however, were not simply interested in repairing these braillers, but in transferring skills to Nepalese people. They had made these intentions clear in a letter they sent to an Education Specialist at Peace Corps headquarters after completing their training at the Perkins School. They waited to put these ideas into practice, however, until after they were well established in the country. Although Cox's supervisor and co-workers at the NAWB were happy to have the braillers repaired as soon as possible, Cox felt it was important to wait until she and her husband had their complete trust and confidence, before discussing plans for a brailler repair training.
In their second year of service, when Cox began discussing the training program with her co-workers, they approved the idea but questioned the PCV's recommendation that the trainees be local typewriter repair people and not teachers of the visually impaired. The staff at NAWB wanted a program that would enable teachers to clean their own machines and keep them in running order as part of their job. Cox and Friedman, however, saw the need for a professional repair service and had already learned from the unsuccessful experience of a Perkins School instructor in Thailand that the teachers were unlikely to have the mechanical aptitude required. Eventually, Cox and Friedman's opinion prevailed and the NAWB staff was convinced that these complicated, expensive machines required regular servicing by someone equipped to take them apart and do the necessary repairs.
Once the issue of the trainees was settled, then plans could move ahead. Based on their own training and experience and with technical assistance from a colleague with Christoffel-Blindenmission (CBM), a German voluntary organization specializing in programs for the blind, Cox and Friedman designed a twoweek course of study. The Perkins School agreed to provide the tools, repair manuals, and enough brailler spare parts to last for six months - the length of time the PCVs had remaining in their Peace Corps service. The NAWB agreed to provide a room in its headquarters, with a large table in the middle, as the training site. On the NAWB's behalf, the PCVs submitted a proposal to Peace Corps' Small Project Assistance program (SPA) for a grant to pay for trainee allowances, training materials, and administrative costs to operate a repair service for six months. CBM agreed to continue subsidizing the service if it got off the ground, once the grant ran out.
The NAWB identified two people as the first trainees. They were both in the typewriter repair business, and the organization had employed their services on several occasions. Apart from their technical abilities, these two men were eager to take the training and make up for the loss in business they were suffering as computers were beginning to make typewriters almost obsolete. Friedman would be their chief trainer.
In a mixture of Nepali and English, Friedman began the training by briefly introducing his two students to braille and the use of the brailler. From that point onward, the trainees spent their time in hands-on instruction. Notwithstanding their limited English, they were able to learn how to use the manual, to follow the diagrams, and to identify over 100 different brailler parts with their correct inventory numbers. After two weeks, they knew how to repair braillers.
As a result of their training, the two repairmen entered into a contract with the NAWB to do annual maintenance of the Perkins Braillers. The NAWB would provide the tools and spare parts; the repairmen would be paid on a piecework basis, on a scale depending on the amount of work required.
Cox and Friedman prepared a detailed inventory of all the brailler parts that the Perkins School had donated. With SPA funds, Cox and NAWB's Chief Administrator Madhav Arjyal purchased a large cabinet where the tools and brailler parts could be locked up and stored. A carpenter was hired to build the boxes for storing the equipment.
Six months later when Cox and Friedman were leaving the country, just about all of the braillers were in working order. To keep them in good repair, the NAWB with Cox designed a schedule for annual maintenance. Also, to make servicing easier, the organization had steel boxes constructed and lined with foam so that the braillers could be safely transported from village schools to the service center at NAWB headquarters in Kathmandu.
Contacting the NAWB after they left the country, Friedman and Cox learned that the organization had delayed following through on the maintenance schedule because construction of a new building was taking priority, but intended to concentrate on brailler repair once the building was completed. Shortly afterwards, they received a letter from the NAWB indicating that the organization had begun to inform schools about the service and the repairmen had successfully repaired several braillers.