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Eyesight and Education: Answers Are Everywhere, Even in Rural China

Chun Hua has Glasses.jpg

Update: See below for specific statistics around income and the cost of glasses for families in rural Yunnan.

The following is a reflection written by Johan Rocha, a 2012 Teach For China Fellow and a 2009 Teach For America alum. The organization he references, Education in Sight, is a non-profit started by Teach For China alumni.

How can you learn if you can't see?

During my time as an inner-city teacher with Teach For America, this wasn't the big question. The barriers we faced there had more to do with second-language education, unstable environments, and students' limited sense of possibility. That's why when I joined Teach For China two years later, I sort of overlooked eyesight as a problem.

You see, in Houston, there was an annual vision screening for our students, and if the student couldn't afford glasses, they could still get them with insurance; we didn't really have to question their vision. That's not the case in 六合 (Liuhe), the small village in 云南 (Yunnan) where I teach. Here, a student might never know they need glasses, and if they do know, the money it would cost them to get a pair might be equal to a quarter-year salary for their parents, or more. In places with no comprehensive healthcare and where families struggle just to get the basics, glasses are simply not an option.

In class and without glasses, these students struggle to keep up with the pace. For them, it takes longer to start working, they struggle to make out the content on the board, and rarely finish their work. The greatest barrier they face, however, is the label they receive as a result of their low scores -- "dumb," and the loss of confidence that follows. Ultimately, when the time comes for the 中考(zhongkao), the high school placement test, rural students with vision problems have virtually zero chance of going on to higher studies. Some of them drop out before they even try.

As a former student and researcher in Itajuba, Brazil, then as a teacher in inner-city Houston, and now as a teacher in Liuhe, I am familiar with the barriers to student success. While all of the problems are unique in their own cultural way, they tend to boil down to two things, awareness and resources. The vision problem at our school was no different, and so when our team of Teach for China teachers decided to take this problem on, we had a good idea of what needed to be done. We joined up with Education in Sight, and through the use of their resources, started See Beyond Sight with the aim of providing free eye exams, and if needed, eyeglasses to our students -- awareness and resources.

Home Visit.jpg For me, one of these students was 李春花 (Li Chun Hua - Spring Flower). Early in my first semester, our team decided to visit her home in 灵地 (Ling Di), a small village nestled in the palms of a distant mountain peak three hours from our school. At this point, I already knew Chun Hua needed glasses just by the way she squinted and leaned forward in class. So when I found out that her father had died just a few months prior to our visit, I knew the barriers to her success were more than she could hope to conquer on her own.

As is often the case in these circumstances, the opportunity cost for education rises and investment in academic success is replaced by further necessity. In their case, the family cannot afford to give Chun Hua what she needs to do well in school - glasses. In the most basic way, the family benefits more from her work on the farm now, and eventually, marriage, than her success in school. If Chun Hua wants a chance at a decent education and to pursue the dreams she has for herself, if she wants glasses, someone would have to give them to her.

And that's exactly what people like Lydia Wessner, Jeorge Gandara, Teresa Wilson, Christy Spilberge, and all of our other contributors did. Thanks to their donations and all of our efforts, See Beyond Sight was a huge success. In just one day, over 300 kids were tested for vision impairment, and of those, nearly 50 received their first pair of corrective lenses; lenses they could never afford on their own. For them, this day is a turning point in their academic path.

The day was made even more special when I saw Chun Hua line up for her examination. As she sat down for the optometry test, I thought about her barriers to education and how, when better understood, were just distorted solutions. Then, as she sat for the formal examination, I reflected on our experience, and how with hope and persistence we were able to bring the solution to light.

Finally, as Chun Hua was picking out the frames for her new glasses, I thought about our students in Liuhe and the circumstances that connect them to kids in Itajuba and Houston - the lack of awareness and resources that obscure their path to success. It brought a smile to my face though, because of all the connections, the strongest is in the hearts of the people who in one way or another do their best to shine a light on that path.

Update: The cost estimates for eye examination and frame/lenses fees came from local teachers who use prescriptive lenses: approximately 700元 total. I then added travel expenses (80元 for two people round trip), as the nearest eye center is about 2 hours from our village, and the expense for lodging and food because the last bus that comes back up the mountain leaves at 12:00 p.m., and doesn't allow sufficient time to get to the center, have and eye exam, then return on the same day (60元 for lodging and 60元 for food). The total comes out to 900元. According to the Statistical Yearbook of Yunnan 2011, per capita net income of rural residents is 3952元 per year, and so, at least for our region, the estimate is not far off from a quarter of annual salary.

Photo by Johan Rocha, Teach For China 2012-14 Teaching Fellow

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