x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Disabled students get Dh1m tech lab boost

New unit at Zayed University to help those with dyslexia and vision and hearing impairments.

The state-of-the-art laboratory should help transform dozens of students’ lives.
The state-of-the-art laboratory should help transform dozens of students’ lives.

DUBAI // Iman Al Marzouqi, 18, has impaired vision. Until recently, she had to either read aloud to someone else - in case she had to be corrected - or be read to.

But now she has access to high-tech magnifying technology, which lets her learn independently.

She is one of 28 students to benefit from a new assisted technology laboratory at Zayed University's Dubai campus. It offers the latest equipment to students who are partly or wholly blind or deaf, or have learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

"Next year it will make students come here," says Miss Al Marzouqi. "It will make them interested in studying and they won't be scared. This will help my confidence a lot."

Zayed University is the last of the three federal universities to open such a facility. It hoped to launch the unit last year but the plan was delayed due to a lack of funding.

Now, thanks to a private donation from Khalaf Al Habtoor, a local businessman, the Dh1million laboratory should help transform dozens of students' lives.

Shamsa Al Muhairi is in the third year of her degree in child, youth and family studies. Blind, she has been dependent on technology since the start of her degree.

Even in that short time, things have come a long way.

"Technology changed our lives and made my life much easier," she says. "Without technology we can't do anything, but this lab has the latest technology, so it will be even better. They have programmes that make the computer talk to us and allow us to access all kinds of resources."

While the centre is a big leap forward, Wemmy de Maaker, head of the Mawaheb centre for special needs in Dubai, wants similar tools for much younger children.

"We should start from the beginning, from elementary school," she says. "There are children who don't even make it to university as they haven't been able to progress.

"We have one deaf student who doesn't need to be with people with special needs, he just needs the technology to be able to integrate into mainstream education."

Fatma Al Qassimi, head of the office of accessibility at Zayed University, herself in a wheelchair, agrees.

"Many people may have the ability to continue their education," she says. "But without opportunities such as this laboratory, it will be impossible for many. It must be addressed at the school level."

Ms Al Qassimi says the highest demand for improved facilities comes from students with impaired vision, since the campus already has ramps, lifts and facilities such as wider doors and low sinks.

She says the centre will have a huge impact on students' lives.

"They can now compete with the other students but it will also help teachers, who can now give them the material in an accessible format," she says. "It was a challenge to both the students and teachers."

The university now plans to open a similar unit at its new Dh3.7billion campus in Abu Dhabi.

The Dubai facility is open to the community and charitable organisations for a nominal fee.

UAE University opened a similar Dh1.2m lab in October 2010, which now serves 55 students. Most are visually impaired or blind, the others deaf or physically disabled.

The results have been profound. "Nobody is quitting now," says Dr Tamer Said Oraby, head of UAEU's disabilities unit. "The grade point averages are being maintained or improving. It's made a huge difference to the students, as it was hard to get them to stay before when they didn't have such support. After the first year of training, they are ready for university life and can be integrated into the regular curriculum."

The unit is funded partly by the university and partly by private donors.

Mr Oraby says greater co-operation with Abu Dhabi Education Council and the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care has given the university more notice about the needs of its students.

Until recently, there were no reports or assessments to allow them to be correctly placed.