x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A teacher shows the way forward for UAE's blind

Hala Bana, the only qualified white stick trainer in the UAE, is hoping that she can help change the stigma towards the blind as she expands her work to Abu Dhabi.

Hala Bana, right, has been teaching blind people how to deal with and overcome diverse aspects they are faced with.
Hala Bana, right, has been teaching blind people how to deal with and overcome diverse aspects they are faced with.

DUBAI // In a region where there are lingering social stigmas towards the blind and visually impaired, and cultural barriers to using seeing-eye dogs, independence can be hard to come by. That is where Hala Bana, the only qualified white stick trainer in the UAE, comes in. Mrs Bana has worked with children in Dubai and Sharjah and hopes to soon expand her work to Abu Dhabi. Since graduating from Michigan State University in 1981 with a master's degree in special education for the visually impaired, Mrs Bana has worked all over the region - in Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt, as well as her native Palestinian Territories.

She started out training teenage girls. "I couldn't believe that these girls knew nothing other than [Braille] reading and praying," she said. "They knew nothing like cooking or even washing their own hands or eating on their own. "How are these people meant to be independent or function as a wife in a household if they are not taught these basic skills?" The experience helped Mrs Bana realise the importance of training people with visual disabilities as young as possible. And although people's attitudes have improved since then, she said they still had a long way to go.

"For years, the blind have been kept at home because people didn't know how to deal with them," she said. "This is changing slowly with the introduction of new facilities and centres, but we desperately need more education and awareness campaigns to overcome the social stigmas." Here in the UAE, Mrs Bana sees many cases of congenital blindness, often as a result of intermarriage, as well as the hereditary condition retinitis pigmentosa.

Recently, she teamed up with Moorfields Eye Hospital and the charity Foresight to provide more white sticks and training to those who need them. Families are a vital component to helping the visually impaired gain skills and confidence. "We encourage the mother to get very involved in the process too," she said. "Only when a family is involved will they truly understand the child's condition." Such children also need access to better education, which will provide them with the best chance of an independent life.

Training can start in newborns, with gentle prompting on sensory awareness, teaching them about the shape and texture of objects around them. "Those with a little vision we teach how to use the limited vision they do have," Mrs Bana said. "For the blind, movement is the most difficult thing. For that reason, it's essential that we teach children as young as possible how to move from place to place safely, balance and how to make a relationship between themselves and the objects in the environments around them. We depend on sensory training too."

Mrs Bana also teaches her clients about walking in straight lines and coaches them on posture and socially acceptable behaviour. Children need to learn what she calls "behaviour modification". "The self-protection approach is a vital part of our training," she said. "It starts at home, detecting walls, doors, corners, beds." The youngest children learn to navigate their environments using various substitute objects, such as walkers, and are introduced to the white stick at the age of six. It is painstaking, one-to-one work, helping a child build confidence.

"Orientation is so important for people to be able to live a better quality of life," she said. "They need to be able to travel, socialise and work. We need the community to understand that and white sticks are the best way to achieve this." Mrs Bana, who has worked in some of the region's poorest countries, does not need expensive equipment to do her job. "In Yemen I got the mothers to use things around them in their environment," she said. "This can be anything from plastic bowls, to cans, things they'd even be throwing away like cardboard boxes. I used junk when I was in Yemen and it did the same job."

It was difficult, she added, to find and keep other qualified trainers, and it remains a challenge to get past the shame some parents still feel about having a visually impaired child. "Part of our goal is to break down the social stigmas people feel about using the white stick. In Europe nobody even turns a head if someone is using a stick. I hope in time we can reach that point here." mswan@thenational.ae