Like many 5-year-olds, Sana (name changed) is learning to read. So is her mother, Humaida, who at 32, finished college a decade ago. The two are studying Braille – Sana because she is visually challenged (she was born with congenital cataracts and glaucoma) while Humaida, who has regular sight, is aiming to improve her fluency in the language so she can help her daughter in her studies.
But the going is not easy. One of the biggest challenges facing those who are visually impaired is the lack of books in Braille. This is also affecting those who are keen to help visually impaired people learn the language. But Humaida is keen to overcome these obstacles. She seeks out manuals in Braille, attempts to master them then teaches her daughter how to read them.
"Many public school teachers today will say, 'Oh, it's too cumbersome or too hard to learn' or 'You don't need it because you can hire a reader'," says Ahmad Al Mulla, head of community relations, Tamkeen. "They are wrong. From Braille comes literacy." The ideal situation would be to encourage sighted parents to serve as Braille educators for their visually challenged children, says Al Mulla.
Tamkeen is a non-profit organisation initiated by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. It is supported by Knowledge Village, British Council and biz-ability and aims to empower vision-impaired individuals in the UAE by providing them training, support and counselling.
But a big problem is the lack of books in Braille. Other than the basic textbooks, there aren't many books for students to peruse. So, what is the way out? Also, why is Braille losing its popularity among the visually-impaired?
Braille: Losing popularity
The "very, serious drop" in Braille literacy occurred gradually, say experts. In the 1990s, as visually impaired children were taken out of special schools and placed in mainstream classrooms, most public schools de-emphasised reading for these kids. Teaching Braille in public schools required special teachers and, some argued, this made visually impaired children feel stigmatised and self-conscious.
Audio books became an acceptable substitute for Braille reading. The advent of technology such as voice-activated computers also made the practice of running fingers across a page coded with raised dots (Braille) seem anachronistic and intimidating. "All these factors have started telling on the visually impaired," says Adel Al Zommar, vice-president, Emirates Association for the Blind (EAB) in Sharjah. Al Zommar should know; he was born visually-impaired.
The consequences of Braille illiteracy is all too familiar to Dana Nashawati, Young Achiever of the Year award winner, and an employee of Emirates, who lost her sight when she was 13 following a brief illness.
"It took me three years to accept that I would not be able to see again,'' says Nashawati, who is working towards her degree at the Canadian University of Dubai.
"Then I went to Tamkeen and began learning Braille. Initially, it was extremely frustrating and depressing as I would take about four minutes to read a word. I didn't want to continue. Still, at that time it was the only thing available so I persevered.
But with the advent of voice recorders, computers and audiobooks, I have stopped using it. I have been able to get up to three to four words per minute, and after that I have to interpolate. It doesn't work very well."
However, the deficiency nags her. "Many of my friends who are visually impaired know Braille. A visually impaired person who reads Braille is able to refer to the paper he/she is discussing, while I can't. Or a blind person can read from prepared notes and I can't." This is why she wants to learn to read Braille fluently and this is where organisations like the EAB come in.
Tamkeen: A ray of hope
As far as rehabilitation of the visually handicapped is concerned, Tamkeen is considered to be the best bet in the UAE. About 200 students, expatriates and nationals, study at Tamkeen, which offers courses like mobility training, computer and English language courses for visually impaired students. It also helps students find employment.
But Al Mulla believes they should be doing much more.
For instance, the legal position of a visually impaired person when it comes to education or employment is a matter of concern. "Sometimes certain employees of universities are unaware of university policies regarding the admission of disabled students and they act individually," he notes. "Many of the problems or barriers visually impaired students face at colleges are because the latter are not fully aware of the policies concerning students [with challenges]."
Al Mulla believes that seeking admission in colleges should be a simple process for special needs students and they shouldn't have to explain, convince or plead for their disability. "They should only have to mention it [their condition] on the application forms and the college should be automatically aware of their needs and have a disability assistance programme prepared to help them with integration," he feels.
"We also help our students to find employment – which is another battle. Most of the time, we are the ones who approach the employers and offer them the technical assistance, knowledge and support to help them integrate a visually impaired person into their work environment.
Tamkeen also offers training for any teacher or school interested to learn about special education."
However, the biggest challenge visually impaired students face is in getting admissions to regular universities or schools that are not equipped to support and teach such students.
Students claim that colleges often reject their requests for admission citing their inability to cater to the students' special needs. Some colleges do admit visually impaired students but only on a 'trial basis'.
Such students, and in some cases their teachers, have to formulate a method to overcome the learning barriers – methods that can never compare with a professionally developed support system.
According to Al Mulla, most schools and universities in the country are unable to accommodate visually impaired students because they do not have well-trained special educators or essential support systems.
Some students in fact go so far as to say that certain colleges and universities simply lack the determination to admit visually-impaired students or other special needs students.
Building a support system
That said, there are a few universities, colleges and schools which are making an effort to address this need. Besides trying to obtain and improve the technology and equipment that could help such students, they are also trying to change the mindsets of people – efforts which can go a long way in improving the lot of students with special needs.
The United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) in Al Ain is perhaps the only university in the country that provides higher education to national students with disabilities including visual, in different streams. The university, which has been admitting special needs students since it was set up 30 years ago, has about 13,300 students, including many who are visually impaired or have very poor vision.
The university has Braille machines, laptops with software to read out to students, audiobooks, hi-tech magnifying glasses and, most importantly, trained staff and faculty who use these teaching aids to help pupils learn their lessons like regular students.
There are also assistants on standby ready to help disabled students in every way – from helping them move from their dormitories to the classes
to offering assistance with their personal needs.
"I do not believe that it has been a policy since the beginning, but we did accept visually impaired students even before I joined the university which was two-and-a-half years back, but the support was minimum," says Dr Courtney Stryker, Assistant Provost and Dean of Students, UAEU. "Since I joined, a number of special needs students, including visually impaired, have studied at the university.
"It has been a big goal of mine to create a disability services office or function at the UAEU division of student affairs. This is very important to me because I think if we admit a disabled student we owe him/her every opportunity for success. The job of the disability services office isn't to give them extra advantage but to level the playing field.
"We have created a disability services office and are now in the process of hiring a director, a disabilities expert, who will help us set up our programmes according to international standards. So, we are going above what the law is asking us to do.
"I am also very excited about the fact that we have acquired the equipment to start this office. It has just arrived and will make it a state-of-the-art facility to assist our students with various disabilities, be it physical, learning or visual. We have Braille printers and readers, keyboards, screen readers, colour readers, etc. This office will have the technology to support these students."
Not just mechanical
Stryker says the human touch will be there too. "Our students, staff and faculty are always there to help. However, the university should have a formal programme. We will have [designated] staff to work with mobility impaired students, others for visually impaired students, etc. The staff will not only help them get around but also train students to get around on their own which is very important.
"We need to have a structure in place so these services are uninterrupted and students can use them at all times instead of only relying on the goodwill of students and faculty."
'What they need is acceptance'
Sally Prosser works with Foresight, a Dubai-based organisation founded by Kathy Nesbitt who was affected by retinitis pigmentosa and decided to help others in the same situation. It contributes towards finding a cure for blindness caused by hereditary eye disease, particularly Retinitis Pigmentosa which affects millions of people.
Prosser says that visually impaired students need very little help to be integrated into a school or college. "What they need is acceptance in society," she says. "In partnership with Tamkeen, we also aim to improve the lives of people with visual impairment in our community and raise awareness of the difficulties they face in their everyday lives.
"Raising awareness among teachers so that they know how to tackle students and approach people with visual impairment is important. Educating teachers is one way forward. These students are highly motivated and intelligent, but the only problem is they don't have vision," says Prosser.
"A magnifier, a software [to help the visually impaired 'read']... will help them go a long way. Some of the technology is available. They are asking for help but people need to find out what is the appropriate help."
"There should be a law requiring universities to provide services and facilities for special needs students, particularly the visually impaired," says a parent of a visually challenged student, who does not want to be identified. "The government should ensure that such students are provided the latest equipment and technology to help them get ahead. Only with such encouragement from both the authorities as well as society can such students find their place in society."
But what happens when a person who is well-versed in Braille requires material to study? There are hardly any avenues to source Braille study material save organisations like the Emirates Association for the Blind (EAB) that have Braille printers which can be used by its members. The printers can translate both English and Arabic into Braille characters easily.
"We have computers with screen readers (the computer 'reads' what's on the screen), Braille converters and Braille portable devices (essentially PDAs with a Braille format file)," says Al Zommar.
"Since this association was started in 1985, it has been trying to get together a collection of books in Braille. There is a shortage of Braille equipment and books. Even though schools are better equipped now to deal with the visually impaired, it's just not enough."
Adel Al Zommar plumps for the Braille system and feels the challenges facing the development of Braille in the Arab world are inhibiting its wider use. "Cost is the main reason that prevents the spread of the Braille system.
Then there's the lack of special printers that meet the needs of blind people as well as the absence of regulations that guarantee the rights of blind people as important individuals in the community," he says.
Even Dr Stryker admits that the UAEU's collection of books or reading material is "very limited".
"But one of the things we will ensure when our Disability Services Division goes online, is find out how to gain access to the necessary texts in Braille and get them," she promises.
There is another reason Al Zommar feels Braille is very important for the visually impaired. "The latest technology such as computer readers has definitely made life easier for us as it helps us search the internet too which is a major advance for us. But we should remember it's not enough to just rely on technology. For instance, unless I read by my hand I won't know 'knife' is spelt with a 'k'. If I rely on audio devices, I will spell it 'nife'.
Simple things, but so vital."
Al Mulla notes that though they have been able to make a difference, there is still a long way to go. "There is a change, but it's very slow," says Al Mulla. "Many parents think their [visually impaired] children are better off in special schools. They don't think they are capable of receiving a proper education and can lead a normal life. They protect and shelter them, and this inhibits the child from growing up to his or her full potential."
For Al Zommar, it all boils down to attitude. And Braille. "Please don't ignore Braille," is his advice to parents of visually impaired children. "Even teachers don't seem to realise the importance of fostering Braille learning."
Humaida understands why this is so. "Parents need their children to be as 'normal' as possible," says Humaida. "And many of them still think of Braille as some mysterious code." But she is determined that both she and Sana will master Braille. "Nothing can replace literacy," she says. "Not a computer, not a tape recorder – nothing can replace the excitement of actually having the words under your fingers."