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Martine Able - Oppenheim Trust Grant Recipient


Martine Able - Auckland Oppenheim Trust Grant Recipient 2000

Being blind since birth has been no obstacle to gaining tertiary qualifications says Auckland student Martine Abel. "It just takes a lot more planning."

Martine, whose vision is limited to a very vague perception of light and dark, already has a Bachelor of Arts with honours in industrial psychology and a diploma in education to her name. Now she's studying performance management, staff development and management skills at the Auckland University of Technology, with a diploma in business studies in her sights.

"I'm broadening my skills for a reason", explains Martine, who has a background in vocational counselling. She is currently working at Newmarket's Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind as a communications instructor (helping people who have lost some or all of their vision to learn new ways to read and write) when she isn't studying.

"In the past my qualifications have been in 'human science', but because I'm working directly with people now in the communications and rehab field, I wanted to spread my wings more into business management. It's still all about people, but I wanted a broader scope - and business studies are about everyday workplace needs, practical evaluation skills and listening to people. It's very relevant to the area I'm involved in."

Martine has been named a recipient of the Oppenheim Tertiary Education Trust, one of 28 blind and sight-impaired New Zealand students nationwide to receive education grants this year.

The trust was set up 11 years ago by Dr Leonard Oppenheim and his wife Virginia on their 50th wedding anniversary and is administered by the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind. The Oppenheims, an elderly Waikanae couple, have both had to deal with visual impairment in their own lives. Dr Oppenheim, who is a Harvard graduate and was a professor of law in the United States for 40 years, has been virtually blind for the past 30. His own tertiary education was possible only because of a scholarship, having been raised in New Orleans by immigrant German parents on a working class income.

"I also had to study and teach while blind, so I know the kinds of pressures on these people trying to study", he explains. "It's difficult for all students, but when you have a disability you have to work 10 times harder. It takes longer to get materials and then to access them, and it's even harder to gain employment unless you're outstanding. That's why we're keen to help those who have the motivation to do well. They need a break."

Martine's $500 grant helps with special costs such as transport between AUT and her Pakuranga home, and the tertiary fees she is charged.

"The AUT staff have been very good, recognising that everything takes a bit longer where I'm concerned," says Martine. "I got all my lecturers' email addresses when I enrolled, and emailed them to ask if I could have course materials as soon as possible so that I would have time to get them transcribed. But of course, as you go along there are also handouts, assignment questions and things that are produced at short notice. In those situations it's just a matter of negotiation to allow me to hand in work a bit later than other students."

Her lecturers have also adapted to describing blackboard notes or visual presentations for Martine, and have no problem with an extra attentive student in their classrooms - her faithful, 11-year-old guide dog.

Born and raised in South Africa, leaving her guide dog behind when she first came to New Zealand four years ago was one of the hardest things Martine has had to do.

"The rest of my family had already emigrated here and job opportunities were much better in this country [as unemployment is at record levels in South Africa, and it's harder still for people with disabilities to find work - over 85 per cent of blind South Africans are unemployed]. I thought I'd come over for a visit first of all to see how it went. But because of quarantine regulations it wasn't as simple as just bringing my dog with me on the plane."

In the end it was a nine-month separation for the team, Martine using a cane to familiarise herself and get around in her dog's absence - followed by a touching reunion at the end of quarantine. "She was so happy to be back with someone she knew", says Martine.

Now Martine is building up towards her exams. Some can be done orally, otherwise AUT releases the exam paper to be transcribed into braille or cassette form and arranges for Martine to use a separate room to sit the paper so that she can use a computer to write her answers. "Likewise with assignments, I type on an ordinary keyboard and then listen to what I've written using a talking computer."

Being very organised is the key to her success. Yet even with her busy job, evening lectures, commuting from East Auckland daily (unable to drive herself, of course, it all takes longer) and the extra time it takes to translate the written world into braille or audio formats, Martine made it a priority to write to the octogenarian Oppenheims, who live in a retirement village these days, to personally thank them for the study grant she has received. "I told them a little bit about myself and what I'm doing. It's easy for things like this to be impersonal, but I think it's nice when they aren't. These two people have put in so much effort and trust into helping people they don't know."

In total over $35,000 in education grants have been distributed to New Zealand students this year, but the Oppenheims say they are always keen for more people to contribute to the trust so that they can help still more sight-impaired students.

If you would like to know more about contributing to the Oppenheim Tertiary Education Trust or creating a trust of your own, contact any member of the Funding Development team or contact the Treasurer, Frank Claridge on Ph: (09) 355 6875.


For further information, please contact Catherine Hennessy, Communications Coordinator, RNZFB, Ph: (09) 355-6884 or 021-687-426.

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