The Minister for Education, Hon Rosy Akbar;
President of Fiji Society for the Blind, Mr Shaheen Asgar;
Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
The General Manager of ANZ Bank, Mr Saud Minam;
Teachers and Staff;
Parents, Guardians and School Children;
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Bula Vinaka and good afternoon to you all.
I think it is most fitting that the Fiji Society for the Blind was founded at the very same time that Fiji had its birth as an independent country. As a sovereign nation in 1970, for the first time, Fijians were tasked with deciding what sort of nation we would be. How would we embrace Fijians who were deprived of a vital sense that most of us take for granted?
How could we make sure that all Fijians could have a productive future? How could we make sure that Fijians who were blind, or deaf, or unable to walk could live with dignity, self-respect, and independence?
The Fiji Society for the Blind was one of the first organizations to seek answers to those questions. And you have been finding those answers for 50 years.
Today, we can thank you because Fiji is a place where the blind are valued for the contributions they can make, like any other citizen—not pitied for the things they are unable to do.
We have learned much in my lifetime about the abilities of people who were once discounted.
And where the abilities of the blind are concerned, we owe a great deal to this Society for enlightening us and for providing ways for the blind to move about the country, to learn a trade or a profession, and to live a relatively normal life.
Fiji cannot afford to forgo the talents of one person who is willing to offer them. We need the talents of all our people, and we can leave no one behind. That would not only be impractical, it would be immoral. And it wouldn’t be very smart, either.
Today, 27 students who have attended the Fiji School for the Blind and other Society programmes are pursuing Tertiary Education. Thirteen are at USP, where they have all the specialized equipment and infrastructure they need. Ten are at Fiji National University, and four are at Fiji Vocational Technical Training Centre.
Other former students have been able to return to their farms or work in their family businesses.
You can be proud of the fact that ten of your students have earned university degrees in the last ten years and are currently employed in Government and private business.
And one of the Society’s former regional student, a young man from Solomon Islands, has graduated with a law degree at USP.
He is the first visually impaired student to qualify as a lawyer in the South Pacific.
This success, of course, belongs to these outstanding individuals.
But I think they would be the first to say that it also belongs to the Fiji Society for the Blind—the only organization providing rehabilitation, education, training and assistance to persons with visually impairment in Fiji as well as to students from neighbouring Pacific Island states.
What started as a modest organization operating a small school in a small wooden structure has grown to an organization operating a school with eight concrete school blocks—a school where 350 children have received their primary education.
And you have kept up with technology, which every day closes the gap between the visually impaired and the fully sighted.
Braille lessons that were once taught using slate and stylus moved to Braille machines, then talking computers, then CCTV and, finally, assistive devices for learning.
I also want to commend you for what you do to make Fijians aware of the importance of visual health, and for what you do to help repair impairments to the eye. I’m talking about your early intervention program to identify visual impairment in children aged up to the age of three. I’m talking about your programs in the community for eye-screening and eye-care awareness. And, of course, your home-based training for visually impaired infants and counselling for their parents.
But beyond the work you do in helping people learn to live productively and happily without sight—or with severe visual impairment—is the work you have done in partnership with Taveuni Rotary and Hawaii Eye Surgeons to treat cataracts and pterygium [te-RIJ-e-um], that mysterious pink growth in the eye that has become known as “surfer’s eye.”
Both of those conditions can cause gradual blindness. People with these conditions once helplessly endured gradual dimming of their world and knowing that one day all sight would be lost. The partnership has carried out 2,500 successful surgeries for the treatment of cataracts and pterygium in the last 10 years.
There are 2,500 Fijians who have owed their ability to see as they always have, to you and Taveuni Rotary and Hawaii Eye Surgeons—and to your commitment to the radical notion that no Fijian should lose their sight when we have medical technology to save it in our very hands.
Finally, I want to say a word about Government’s role. I don’t want to dwell on Government today, because this day is about the Fiji Society for the Blind and the noble service you have given to Fiji for 50 years. This is not Government’s day.
It is the responsibility of Government to use its resources to ensure that our citizens who are disabled or impaired in some way are assisted so that they may be on an equal footing with everyone else.
Our Constitution enshrines equality for all persons, including the disabled and the hearing-and-visually impaired. The Constitution is even printed in Braille so that the visually impaired can read it and know their rights. We do that because it is the right thing to do, and because it is an investment in our citizens.
The Fiji Education Grants, the Hostel Grants, the Disability Allowance, the Bus Fare Allowance and the free TELS Scholarships to students with disabilities are one way we express that support as a people—not just as a Government, but as a people. If we can do more, we should—not as charity, but as a means of ensuring equality.
One day, perhaps on your 100th anniversary, the Prime Minister who addresses you will be one of your own former students. That will be a fine day, and in my mind, it is well within the realm of possibility. Keep doing what you are doing, and that day will come.
Before I wrap up, I understand we will recognise some of your employees who have been with the Fiji Society for the Blind for more than 20 years.
Vinaka vakalevu to Vishwa Mudaliar, Nunia Naiyawa, and Barbara Farouk for the more than two decades of service they’ve given to their fellow Fijians through this Society–and a special thank you to Vilisi Salafabisi, who has served this Society for 30 years.
Thank you – Vinaka vakalevu.