I am standing in front of eleven blind and visually impaired teenage boys. Watching my clumsy attempts at warm up jolliness is the PEO…the Provisional Education Officer (Special Needs) who has accompanied me on this venture on behalf of the Permanent Secretary for Education without who’s nod I would never have got to do these interviews at Munali Secondary school. This was a school of note and was set up in the 50’s with a resource centre for disabled children. Now, integrated into the main school, they have about 15 VI kids and over 40 deaf children in this particular year group. They have a dormitory originally fitted out for 90 kids and now sleeping over 200. Special needs teachers are scarce and the resource centre is lacking in basics. The secondary school is split into girls and boys but there are no girls sitting in front of me. I am disappointed and ask why the one visually impaired female student chose not to come along. Noone wants to comment.
All the boys are waiting. There faces are turned to my rustling as I fiddle with the mikes. The PEO in a beautiful suit watches me in my sweaty T-shirt. He looks unimpressed.
I get their names and promptly forget them. I tell them what I am doing and ask for comments. Nothing.
I ask if anyone would like to talk about their sight loss. The room fills with silence so profound one of the deaf kids in the corner giggles.
I finally have a bit of luck when one lad starts to talk abut his hobbies and hopes. He started a press club at a previous school. He has passion to become a journalist. I am thrilled. Inch by inch I pull like teeth a little from about 4 boys. J is an albino lad but has a girlfriend. The others hoot with respectful laughter. There are a couple of Manchester supporters.
However it is grinding down again so I begin to wrap up. As soon as I have turned off the equipment the boys start asking questions. What are the job opportunities in UK for blind people? They are shocked to hear over 70% of working age blind adults don’t work. I tell them that there are blind racing drivers, travellers, journalists, politicians. They perk up. I tell them about blind and visually impaired sports. There are blind football teams. The boys clap with pleasure…and confusion. But how do they find the ball..?
They want pen pals. They want resources… we chatter on and I realise I have 10 minutes to get to my next meeting and drop the PEO off at the ministry. And we have to go via the beautiful head teacher’s office to sign out. She is young, stunningly elegant, dressed in African night blue with a crafted embroidered turban. Next to her and the PEO I look like a medieval cow herder. The PEO says ‘Madam, look carefully at this one.’ They look at me. ‘Now, he says, you would never know but this one is blind too!’ They both gaze intently at me. I try and look appropriately journalistic and yet perkily blind. They continue to stare. I wonder if I should do something ‘blind’ like knock over my drink or walk into a wall. My smile is a bit forced. ‘Well done’ says the head teacher and with a perfect hand waves me out the door.