In a sunny courtyard in Bangkok, Thailand, there stands a statue of a woman who is blind, her fingertips resting on a braille book.
Every year, children gather to place garlands before the statue. They then stand silently to pay their respects to this former Perkins School for the Blind student, famous for her fierce commitment to education and equality for people with blindness.
Chances are you’ve never heard of her. Her name is Genevieve Caulfield.
Although largely forgotten in the United States, Caulfield is a revered figure in Southeast Asia. During her remarkable life, she taught braille to blinded soldiers in Japan, persevered through war and natural disasters to start schools for the blind in Thailand and Vietnam, and created the first braille version of the Thai alphabet.
Born in 1888 in Virginia, Caulfield lost her vision as an infant when a doctor accidentally spilled caustic fluid in her eyes. She retained only a slight perception of light in one eye.
Her parents understood the importance of a good education, so they enrolled her at Perkins when she was 11. She later attended the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia.
At age 17, Caulfield made a decision that set the course for the rest of her life.
“I made up my mind that what I wanted to do with my life was to go to Japan as a teacher, and do whatever I could to make the people of Japan and the United States more friendly,” she said.
It took her more than 15 years to accomplish that goal. Caulfield went on to graduate from Teachers College in New York City. She spent four months teaching at Perkins before moving back to New York City to teach English to Japanese businessmen and government officials.
In 1923, she sailed to Japan. Settling in Tokyo, she survived the Great Kantō earthquake, mastered the Japanese language, got a job teaching English to sighted students and taught braille to Japanese soldiers who were blinded in battle.
Caulfield’s life changed again in 1936 when she asked a visiting Thai businessman about blindness education in his country. He replied, “There are no blind people in Thailand.” That response told Caulfield all she needed to know – that children with visual impairments in Thailand were ignored and marginalized.
With $800 in her pocket, Caulfield sailed to Thailand and opened the Bangkok School for the Blind in 1939. It struggled at first, attracting only a few students – one of whom was sent by his father to learn how to become a more skillful beggar.
But Caulfield persevered. She created a Thai version of braille, a particularly challenging project because the Thai alphabet has 44 consonants, 32 vowels and eight accent signs. She taught her students to read and write braille, and the school grew steadily over the next few years.
World War II interrupted her plans. Thailand allied with Japan against the United States and most Americans fled the country. Caulfield refused to leave, and after Japanese troops moved into Bangkok, she was put under house arrest. When the tide of the war turned and U.S. and British bombing raids devastated Bangkok, Caulfield was allowed to flee with her students to a safe location.
Following the war, the school flourished. A princess from the Thai royal family joined the staff as a teacher, and the government provided land, buildings and subsidies. The student population soared to over 200.
In 1956, the government of South Vietnam invited Caulfield to help start a school for the blind in Saigon. The school and rehabilitation center opened in 1960.
In later years, Caulfield returned to Japan to teach, while continuing to raise money for her school in Bangkok. In her 1960 autobiography, “The Kingdom Within,” Caulfield wrote: “That is what life is, the process of going on and on.”
In 1961, she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award – sometimes called the “Asian Nobel Prize” – for her pioneering work in blindness education. In 1963, she received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States, from President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Caulfield died on Dec. 12, 1972. Forty-four years later, students at Bangkok School for the Blind still gather on that day before her statue – to honor the woman who helped build a better future for children who are blind in Asia.
Information and quotes from Undaunted by Blindness (2010) by Clifford E. Olstrom; the Bangkok Post (Nov. 13, 2012); ChalkboardChampions.org (June 12, 2014); and the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (Aug. 1961).