Kopex Tim, 21, is blind in both eyes and has just gone back to school in Papua New Guinea for the first time since he was eight.
Kopex Tim stops for a brief moment when his cane hits something. His younger brother Hanika moves ahead, and seeing the piece of wood in the middle of the track, removes it. Kopex continues down the narrow path, using his cane to guide him. He has been doing this every day for years, and knows the trail perfectly in his mind – every bend, every stream, every muddy patch, every wooden bridge, every stone. And every piece of wood.
Kopex is blind in both eyes. He relies heavily on feel, by using his cane, and sound, by clicking his fingers to determine where objects are and how far or close they may be. His elder brother Albert had been his main companion, until recently when another brother, Hanika, returned from a nearby province to assist Kopex.
Kopex is proving that people that cannot see well can be productive community members.
Because Kopex is so competent and confident, Hanika’s presence is largely to keep him company. Otherwise, Kopex is treated just like anyone else.
“We don’t treat him like a baby because of his disability,” says Albert.
Kopex wasn’t born visually impaired. At the age of seven, he had hit his forehead on a large rock while diving, and had continuous nose bleeds following the accident. Slowly he began to lose vision in his right eye. Then the left.
A doctor told the family that there was a growth on his optic nerve and only a surgery overseas could restore Kopex’s sight. The operation would cost 50,000 PNG Kina (NZ$280,000). But with no money to fund this, all hope for Kopex was lost.
Kopex, 21, is studying to become a lawyer.
He left school at age eight.
There are approximately 1.7m people living with a disability throughout the Pacific region, and that can be devastating for those children without support. Across the Asia-Pacific region, less than 10 per cent of children with disabilities attend school, compared to 70 per cent of children without a disability. And the rate of unemployment for those same people ranges from 50 per cent to 90 per cent.
“I allowed myself to believe that I would never be able to go to school again, even though I had this hunger to continue my education,” says Kopex.
When he learned about the services provided by an organisation called the Callang Special Education Centre, he realised he had an opportunity to keep learning. There, he learned the braille writing system, and also improved his knowledge of basic phonics, vowels and mathematics.
Kopex has built his own hut and gardens, and has a heard of goats.
“He is a very smart student, and eager to learn,” says Julie Pinari, a Community Based Rehabilitation officer who has been helping Kopex with his learning for several years.
At age 18, Kopex was allowed into the mainstream education system, where he did grade 4 at Kumin Primary School in Mendi.
By the time he finished grade 5, Kopex was dux, and by 2020 he’ll be sitting his national exams. He once doubted he would ever go to school again, but no more.
“Even though I have this disability, I can learn just as the other children do. I can do anything they can do,” he says.
His is a success story. In order for visually impaired students throughout Papua New Guinea to have similar chances of success, all national exams are printed in braille, by Mt Sion School for the Blind, using embosser equipment donated by UNICEF.
And UNICEF supports children living with disabilities in Papua New Guinea by providing assistive devices and learning materials, and training teachers in both mainstream and special needs schools.
Following the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit Papua New Guinea in February, UNICEF was able to provide training and equipment to assist children who may have experienced traumatic and distressing events.
“School in a box” kits, including stationery, teaching and learning materials for 40 students at a time, were also distributed.
Kopex was lucky – his village did not suffer much in the quake. And he is coping well, even with the series of severe earthquake aftershocks that followed. Perhaps because he has grown used to overcoming adversity.
“It doesn’t get me down. I have new things to learn every day that comes – every school lesson is another opportunity for me.”
He is determined to complete his education and become a lawyer. When asked why, there is no hesitation.
“So I can fight for the rights of other people living with disabilities.”
His message is simple: “See our ability, not our disability.”
This article by Gloria Bauai and Ethan Donnell was supplied as part of Stuff’s partnership with Unicef NZ. Unicef stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. Find out more at unicef.org.nz