MUSCAT // As Oman's only blind woman to hold a PhD, Sharifa al Said knows about the difficulties facing the visually impaired in a country that lags behind others in providing equal opportunities for the disabled.
The 48-year-old social worker, who last month earned her PhD in the Unites States, had to battle through an education system which has no facilities in the mainstream schools to help the deaf and the blind. Having written her thesis on developing literacy for the visually impaired, Ms al Said is now urging both the private sector and government to employ more blind people. "One of the challenges that I see in Oman is that people with disabilities are not given credit for their achievements," she said. "They need to be given more opportunities to work and provide accessibilities for them. Society as a whole has to be more open and accept them as individuals.
"People with disabilities in the US already have a place in society and laws to protect their rights. We need that in Oman." Oman has over 60,000 people with disabilities, according to the Oman Disabled Association (ODA), out of which 11,000 are visually impaired and 15,000 are deaf. Though literacy rates for the paraplegia, who make up half of the total disabled people in Oman, is improving, the deaf and blind still lag behind in terms of education.
The deaf children go to Al Amal School while the blind study at the Omar bin Al Khattab school, both run by the education ministry, but with little prospect of enrolling for higher education once they complete their secondary education. Ms al Said is among the few disabled people in Oman born into a well-off family and she has managed to make the most of her social position. Born in 1962, she first attended school at the age of 10 in the United States when Oman appointed her father as first secretary to the United Nations in New York. At the time, Oman did not have a school for special needs children.
The basic education she received in the US plus the fact her father was later elevated to the post of an ambassador helped Miss al Said push her academic ambitions forward. With the exception of the PhD, which she paid for herself, Oman's ministry of education provided her with two scholarships in the United States for her Bachelor and Master degrees in Special Education in 1987 and 1991 respectively.
She wants the visually impaired, and children with other disabilities who come from less privileged families, to make their mark in Omani society - a view echoed by charity workers. "Higher education so far is a dead zone for the blind as well as the deaf," said Hassan al Balushi, 57, a former member of the ODA and a social worker. "Just a small percentage goes to colleges and universities because these institutions don't have the facilities for either the deaf or blind."
Most of the deaf and blind children come from either poor or working class families who cannot afford to educate their children abroad to special needs institutions, Mr al Balushi added. An official of the charity-run Al Noor Association for the Blind said just two per cent of the visually impaired people have found jobs despite comprehensive campaigns by his organisation in the last 10 years. "It is an appalling record. We have provided free facilities like Braille, talking office programmes and electronic magnifiers to the private sector to employ the visually impaired but that has not changed much," Saleh Al Harbi, the Al Noor secretary said.
Company officials, when contacted, were either evasive when discussing employing disabled people or said they were on the verge of employing them. Companies that have already employed disabled people urged others to do the same. "We have two blind people in our call centre," said Tariq al Barwani, head of corporate communications at Nawras Telecommunications. "We would like to encourage other companies to do the same to give disabled people a chance."
Mr Harbi, who said 99 per cent of the blind work as telephone operators or in call centres, urged companies to use technologies like Hal, a powerful computer screen reader program that uses an integrated voice synthesiser to output the content to the speakers. "Blind people can do office work using the Hal software. Employers need to think beyond telephone services to provide more meaningful work for the blind and visually impaired," Mr Harbi said.
Juma al Wahaiby, a 58-year-old blind man who has been working as a telephone operator at the information ministry for more than 20 years, agreed. "I use the Hal system at home to surf the internet, send e-mails or use the Microsoft Office suite. If given an opportunity, I can work as an office assistant in any establishment," Mr al Wahaiby said. He added that he hoped Ms al Said's academic success would serve as an example to the government to provide opportunities for the visually impaired to enrol in higher education institutions. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org