Dubai: The visually impaired community in the UAE is small.
While there are no numbers for how many people in the UAE actually suffer from partial or complete blindness, the challenges the community faces are clear to everyone involved.
The biggest one by far? Access to information, according to experts who work with the visually impaired community.
“Access to information includes everything – from libraries to websites and availability of books in braille. Not all websites are compliant with the international accessibility standards that should be actually implemented. This ultimately has some very obvious impact on people with visual impairment,” Dr Ahmad Al Omran, Chairman of the Consultative Council for People with Determination, told Gulf News.
The Emirates Association of the Visually Impaired (EAVI), where Dr Al Omran is also a vice-president of, was set up in 1985 to support people with visual impairments.
“We [EAVI] have around 200 members and our main objective, of course, is promoting their wellbeing and equipping them with the skills necessary, whether it is through education or employment.”
While Emiratis currently can acquire opportunities in education as well as employment, according to Dr Al Omran schools are still not fully equipped to provide the right education to visually impaired students. His work currently focusses on setting up policies across the UAE.
“We have a shortage of teachers who can teach braille and who are fully trained to deal with blind people. This and poor access to information are the two main challenges. Otherwise, it is possible for a blind person to be enrolled in a public school,” he said.
This limited access to information can manifest itself in various aspects of a person’s life. However, the biggest problem crops up when a person with complete or partial loss of sight looks for employment.
Tamkeen is an organisation that works to bridge that gap of vocational skills. As part of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the organisation is run by a team that includes people who are completely or partially blind and provides vocational training and awareness workshops, to push for greater employment of people with visual impairment in the workforce.
“When organisations contact us, looking to hire blind employees, we match their requirements with the skills of the people we have in our database. We then nominate the person for the role. If they lack technical skills, Tamkeen also provides technical training that will allow the person to master his/her work,” Alaa Al Harbawi, Disability Affairs Manager at Tamkeen, told Gulf News.
Even after the person is employed, the organisation conducts constant follow ups to iron out any problems the company or employee might be facing. However, Alaa felt that most companies failed to offer the right jobs and roles to blind employees.
They also organise social community services by providing seminars and awareness workshops to companies that want to know about blindness and if companies would like to provide their brochures in braille, Tamkeen publishes the content for free.
However, Alaa reiterated the issue of poor access to information and felt that despite their efforts, there was still a lack of awareness about the capabilities of people with visual impairments.
“When a blind employee starts working, the employer will only keep him or her at the desk, either because they don’t believe in the blind person’s capability or they feel sorry for them. It is really difficult to know for sure but most people presume that if a person is blind, they can only answer phones, which really hurts.”
Another organisation working with the visually impaired community in the UAE, helping children to be able to read and write is the Blind Printing Press in Abu Dhabi, which was established by the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs in 2008. Its purpose is to print documents, books and exam papers that are part of school curricula in braille for those who are blind and books with enlarged fonts for individuals with poor vision.
Their aim is to support individuals, especially children in mainstream schools around the UAE, by achieving equal opportunities in education regardless of their disability. Currently, they supply books for students of Grade 1 to Grade 12 all over the UAE.
Naema Abdul Rahman Al Mansouri, director of the Blind Printing Press, told Gulf News: “I am happy to help all the blind students at different academic levels. We can provide students different ways and services to help them to have cultural, social and academic inclusion.”
They have employees, who are certified to train blind students how to read and write. The training begins with them teaching their students how to read basic numbers and letters and ends with teaching them how to write braille.
A spokesperson at the press said: “The training depends on the age of the students and on their academic level. The experts will teach them the basics of braille. And we also have a form of electronic training.”
The students are also trained how to play chess, which the press hopes will increase their intelligence. “It takes about two months for the junior students to pick up the game, but elder students take only around 10 days,” she added.
In the past nine years, they have also hosted nine annual competitions for the students. They are each given a story written in braille to read over the summer break, which they are later tested on. So far, 81 students have participated in their competitions.
BOX: Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or who have low vision. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, braille symbols are formed within units of space known as braille cells. A full braille cell consists of six raised dots, with 64 possible combinations using one or more of these six dots. A single cell can be used to represent an alphabet letter, number, punctuation mark or even a whole word.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide. Out of those, 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision.