Noor Dubai offers a lot to visually impaired children
Abdullah Awad, a 15-year-old Emirati, recalls being shouted at in a mall while taking a stroll with another visually impaired person. The accusing voice had demanded to know why the two friends were "pretending to be blind" and walking around with canes.
"The woman walked away before I could explain that I am really blind and that I need my cane to get around," he says, making a case for greater social awareness about the visually impaired.
Awad was born with his impairment. His 11-year-old sister is also blind but both siblings have adapted to their condition and are studying in a public school.
"Public schools are improving and trying their best to accommodate children with special needs but still there is a long way to go," says Awad. He faced difficulties while growing up with schools rejecting him because he was blind, but eventually it all worked out with persistence and immense strength of will.
Delay in issuing books
The major problem for children like Awad is lack of attention and supervision and their difficulties are compounded when public schools issue books printed in Braille way into the academic year.
"In rare cases we get them two weeks after the beginning of the term or academic year; sometimes we get them just before the exams," said Awad.
Abdullah Bin Thahir from Dubai, who is in his final year of high school said: "The ministry should invest more effort on our needs and wants."
Bin Thahir was integrated into a regular public school in Grade 5. He points out the challenge of moving from an environment where everyone is the same to an environment where he is conspicuously different.
Public schools provide study material for all subjects in Braille except for maths. Private schools in the UAE do not offer aids for the visually impaired except for private Arabic schools that follow the Ministry of Education curriculum.
Mohammad Sha'lan's mother is gripped by anxiety each new academic year as she struggles to secure her child's books and to collect class notes from his classmates to help her son with his studies.
Although most visually impaired children have specific devices to type in their class notes, for 13 year-old Sha'lan that is not an option - overeager classmates damaged the device and his parents are not in a position to afford a laptop specifically for the visually impaired.
His mother struggled to find a private school that could accommodate her son and continuously worries for his future.
"I have given up my career for him and spend sleepless nights worrying about his education. My son is very smart and talented; if only he had more options to achieve his dreams," says the Ajman resident.
Sha'lan's mother, originally from Lebanon, had to type out all his subjects in Braille when he was in Grades 1 and 2 in the absence of other means. Nowadays, she tries her best to assist him with his English and Maths for lack of proper study material in Braille.
Another issue for visually impaired children is that they are left out of computer classes and physical education sessions for lack of facilities for them.
Mohammad Mubarak, from Sudan, is both visually impaired and suffers from severe osteoporosis that has confined him to a wheelchair.
"During his lower secondary education, he was carried all the time by support staff at the school to his classroom on the second floor and when boarding and getting off the school bus," recalls Mubarak's mother.
"I don't face much difficulty in school but wish I can get my books on time to catch up with the rest of my classmates,' said the 15-year-old.
Marwa Ali Saeed used to journey daily during the summer from Fujairah to Dubai to attend classes at Tamkeen, an institute that provides essential programmes such as computing and English courses for the visually impaired.
She also goes every weekend to the Blind Association in Sharjah in the absence of proper facilities or programmes for the visually impaired near her home.
Marwa says even treatment sessions to restore her vision are unavailable in Fujairah.
Lack of such options is a major challenge for the 15-year-old, especially since the young UAE national has more than 50 per cent chance of regaining her sight.
"My parents are thinking seriously about registering with the Noor Dubai initiative of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai," she said.
The biggest worry for Marwa as of now is when she will get her study material. "I don't want to be left behind in my studies. In previous grades, the IT course was only considered an activity but now it contributes to our overall grade percentage. I don't know how I will be able to take classes in the absence of computers that don't suit the needs of visually impaired pupils," she said.
Most of the pupils were enthused by the Noor Dubai campaign and spoke of how it had revived hope that their needs would be addressed from a social, educational and medical perspective.