Sunday, December 21, 2008

Living in College for visually impaired students

A flute is always on his mouth as he walks, and one can see the love he has for the instrument. He plays it beautifully, attracting the attention of passersby. Mussie Mebrahtu is a visually-impaired student at the Eritrea Institute of Technology in Mai-Nefhi. He is second year diploma student in the English of Department.He was born in Debresina, in the Elabered Sub Zone in the Anseba Region. He attended elementary education in Abraha Bahta School for the Visually Impaired.

Then he went to Shieb Seleba Junior School in Debresina. Later he continued his education in Keren Secondary School before he left to Sawa to complete his 12th grade. After passing the matriculation exam, he joined the Eritrea Institute of Technology. Mussie said, “There were 19 blind students with me in Sawa in 2005 and all of us have passed the matriculation exam. We are determined to continue the method of study that led us to success in the matriculation exam.”

Currently, there are 47 visually impaired students in Mai-Nefhi, and many of them are in the departments of History, English, and Social Science Education.At college, blind students might have difficulties finding their way around. But for many of them getting around is not a problem. Many develop their own ways to overcome the difficulties they face.Of course, the visually impaired students at college need to master an environment that is designed primarily for the sighted.

Many of them adapt to the environment quickly but for their academic success, they need the complements of special technology so they can access textbooks and computer screens they cannot see.With modern technology, students need access to machines that could convert regular text into Braille. So the introduction of scanners, computers with embossers that change computer text into Braille prints, and a sound output (screen reader) that converts texts displayed on the screen to sound, and other equipment is essential.

These equipment help students write their senior and term papers on their own, instead of asking other students to write for them.Some of the challenges facing these students include lack of adequate appropriate Brailled textbooks for reference and a limited number of Braille computer terminals. “Although our college has a number of Brailled books, most are not in line with our academic fields,” said Mussie.Shortage of Braille papers is also another challenge.

Abraha Bahta Elementary School provides Braille papers and some books. “We of course get some help; we receive 100 Braille papers for a semester, which is not enough,” said Mussie.By the time blind students reach college, they have probably developed many methods for dealing with the volume of visual materials. Most use a combination of methods, including readers, brailled books, and audiotape recorded books.Mussie and his friends do much of their studies by typing the handouts supplied by the instructors on Braille papers.

“Students read for us the handouts and we type it on the Braille, but this takes a lot of time. The writing itself takes hours, let alone reading it later,” Mussie says. At times the students send their handouts to the Abraha Bahta Elementary School so that the printed materials are converted into Braille papers by embossers. “Visually impaired students have some special needs to support themselves,” Mussie said. He mentioned lack of financial help as a major problem. “At high school, we used to get some pocket money from the Abraha Bahta School in cooperation with the Ministry of Education,” he said.

“In addition, the PFDJ office used to give us allowance for transportation.“But here in the college, we don’t have the money that we used to get. We have some hope though—the PFDJ and the President’s offices are working it out. Hopefully, we’ll get it soon. I also need to mention that the blind students at the college received some 20,000 Nakfa from the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare. And I hope it will have continuity.”Despite some problems, Mussie says, college life is relatively comfortable.

“We have free dormitory and cafeteria services so we don’t have that much expenditure. At high school, we had to rent a house and pay for food,” he said. “The other thing is, you get more socialized and have more friends here in our college.”Mussie appreciates some of the staff members for their help and generosity. “Some of our teachers give us a soft copy of the handouts; and even some come to our [blind students] study room and discuss with us the subject matter we read.”

In the future, Mussie would like to contribute what he can to the development of the nation. “I would like to do my best to bring a change in the economic and social development of my country. I would especially like to work closely with the disabled people and convince them that they are not different than anyone.”Regarding his flute, Mussie says he has tremendous interest in arts and music. This goes back to his elementary school music courses that he had at Abraha Bahta. “The music courses I took there encouraged me to try some instruments later. I play the piano, melodica, kirar, and flute,” he said.

“Of all these, the flute is the best because you don’t have a problem carrying it with you everywhere.”The flute has other advantages as well. “It serves two purposes: one, it alerts passersby that I am coming and they make a way; second: it introduces me to many people; almost everyone knows me in town and I’m identified by the flute,” said Mussie.


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