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Trust Giving Blind Students The Break To Achieve



Forty-one blind and sight impaired students from throughout the country have benefited from grants from the Oppenheim Tertiary Education Trust.

Given annually, individual grants of up to $2000 from the Blind Foundation administered trust assist students with fees and other costs associated with blindness such as adaptive technology, readers and writers, and transport.

Partially sighted twins James and Tim Brien of Timaru, who both have ocular albinism, are recipients for the second year. Thanks to his grant James has returned to Christchurch to pursue his degree in mechanical engineering, and Tim is back at Wellington Polytech where he is studying for a Bachelor of Design.

Totally blind student Virak Tan (24) will this year complete his Bachelor of Economics and come close to finishing his BSc at the University of Victoria. Tortured and blinded as a child by the Khmer Rouge in his native Cambodia, Virak has lived in New Zealand since age eight, and is determined to pursue a career as an actuary or stockbroker.

Francesca Baskiville-Robinson of Waikanae has begun a Diploma in Japanese Studies at Palmerston North's International Pacific College following her 7th form year at Yanagawa High School in Japan. She aims to follow on with a Bachelor of International Studies, then return to Japan to teach English.

Eighteen-year-old partially sighted Kirsti Twamley of Mt Roskill, Auckland, is taking a Certificate in Pattern Making and Garment Assembly at AIT in preparation for a degree in fashion technology. Last year Kirsti was a semi-finalist in the New Zealand Secondary S

Dr Leonard Oppenheim of Waikanae, who founded the Trust with his wife Virginia 10 years ago, and has been blind himself for over 30 years, knows more than most what it means to be given an opportunity to "gain an education and the credentials needed to get work".

"I'm from an immigrant German family, born and raised in New Orleans. We didn't have money for higher education. The only reason I got the opportunity to pursue a career in law was because I won a scholarship as a freshman to Tulane University," says the 84- year-old, who has lived in New Zealand since 1986. As a young adult he went on to study further at Tulane University and Harvard University, was a professor of law for almost 40 years, and also worked as a labour management arbitrator.

"I've also had to study and teach while blind, so I know the kinds of pressures on these kids. They have to work ten times as hard as anyone else, it takes longer to get materials and then access them. Finding the time for part-time work, and even actually finding work when you're competing with sighted people, is another difficulty.

"They need a break. It's difficult for all students but when you have a disability you've got to have outstanding qualifications, because it's even harder to gain employment. That's why we're keen to help those who have the motivation to do well," says Dr Oppenheim, whose most recent contribution of $30,000 has increased the capital of the trust to over half a million dollars.

According to the Blind Foundation, approximately 60% of blind and sight impaired people of working age are unemployed.

"There is still a lot of ignorance in New Zealand about what blind people can and can't do. New technologies still have a way to go, but they have helped make many more careers viable for blind and sight impaired people," says blind lawyer Linda Beck of Christchurch. "More employers need to understand this," she says.

The 40-year-old has worked for numerous government departments and bodies including the State Services Commission, the Ministry of Women's Affairs, and the Human Rights Commission. Last August she began researching and writing her PhD in Labour Law, which she says is focusing on the operation of the Employment Tribunal.

A recent Oppenheim grant has made a small dent in the cost significant cost of this three-year project, which is already attracting a lot of interest from government, universities and the legal profession.

The Oppenheims say they are keen for more people to contribute to the trust so that they can help more students. WHERE ARE THEY NOW Some past Oppenheim recipients include: Paul Gibson, current president of the Disabled Person's Assembly (DPA); Auckland lawyers Simon Laurent and Masumi Scherb; University of Victoria Chaplan Ken Joblin; president of the Association of Blind Citizens Jonathan Mosen (the first blind person to gain a Masters in Public Policy); and London-based soprano and Guildhall graduate Lisette Wesseling. With her own group The Sweelinck Ensemble, Lisette will compete in the York International Early Music Competition in July. Sweelinck was one of just eight groups selected from hundreds of entries. Lisette also teaches singing and music braille


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