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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Blind optimism: how one man refused to be brought down by disability

The Al Manarah Association for Arab Persons with Disabilities in Israel offers the world's only online library of audio books in Arabic and was recently honoured by the UAE

Abbass Abbass, head of the Al Manarah association, visits the Kim Al Sahes School for the visually disabled in Nazareth. Courtesy Al Manarah /
Abbass Abbass, head of the Al Manarah association, visits the Kim Al Sahes School for the visually disabled in Nazareth. Courtesy Al Manarah /

Abbass Abbass has a congenital and degenerative eye condition which will eventually rob him of the little that remains of his sight. Yet it would be hard to find a more positive and optimistic individual in the entire Middle East.

Mr Abbass is director of the Al Manarah Association for Arab Persons with Disabilities in Israel, which was recently given a prestigious award by the UAE. While he is undoubtedly honoured by the accolade, what excites Mr Abbass even more is talking about Al Manarah's flagship project, the world's only online library of audio books in the Arabic language.

Visually-impaired people throughout the world can access 4,500 titles — 95 per cent of which are in Arabic — either through the internet (www.arabcast.org) or on their mobile phones with Arabcast, an app specially created by Al Manarah.

"We have over 50,000 unique users who use the library on a daily or weekly basis," Mr Abbass says in his office in Nazareth.

The plan now is to promote the library among Syrian refugees in Greece and Germany so they can preserve their language and culture, he says. He also wants to see it introduced into the educational system of the UAE and other Arab countries.

With its slogan Close Your Eyes and Read, the library offers its services for free but those wishing to use it must furnish Al Manarah (Arabic for lighthouse) with proof that they are "print disabled".

The range on offer includes children's literature, novels and books on health education, and those who make the recordings come from Israel, Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia and the US, among other places. Al Manarah has a studio at its office and some readers make recordings in their home studios.

"Our dream is to have readers from all over the Arab world," said Mr Abbass.

In May, Al Manarah was awarded the Mohammed bin Rashid Arabic Language Award, part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives. Established by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, it seeks to highlight "successful and outstanding experiences in disseminating and educating in the Arabic language". The award, which was presented to Mr Abbass at a ceremony in Dubai, came with a US$70,000 (Dh257,103) prize.

Mr Abbass likes to quote Helen Keller, the deaf-blind American author and activist, whose picture hangs on the wall in Al Manarah's office. "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." He sees less than half a metre in front of him and cannot discern the skin, hair or eye colour of people sitting next to him, using instead their voices to recognise them. But he says: "I'm satisfied with what I have. I don't have a dream to see better. I have a dream to increase my impact."

His journey to establishing Al Manarah in 2005 was laced with painful experiences arising from his visual impairment but also with achievements driven by his intelligence and determination.

"The attitude of Arab society is that people with disabilities are marginalised. The attitude is so negative generally that they don't receive the basic opportunity to be included in education in the best way and in social life," he says.

His father, a lawyer, and his mother were always supportive and he was able to excel in his studies. But he still sighs as he recalls what he went through after completing high school and going for an eye examination in Nazareth in order to be eligible for a blindness certificate.

"The ophthalmologist told me my eyesight was very low and asked me what my plans are for the future. I said I got the highest grades in my class and I want to go to the Hebrew University law school. He said, 'You can't see half a metre. People like you have to stay in a warm corner of the house and listen to the radio.' My mother was crying outside the clinic and I said, 'Mum, I promise that one day you'll be so proud of your son.'

"This is the story of millions of people, especially in Arab countries, being judged without the opportunity to express themselves," he says.

It was another bitter experience, after he had earned a master's in law from the Hebrew University in 2004, that helped push him to found Al Manarah. He applied for a job as a human rights researcher at an NGO and initially received an enthusiastic response. But when he showed up for the interview and the recruiter saw he was visually impaired, he was told that "the schedule is so tough and can't suit a person like you".

For Mr Abbass, this was a turning point. "I said to myself, 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me?' I thought no one is taking action so I have to. I decided to go back to my hometown and establish Al Manarah."

In his view, disabled Arab citizens of Israel suffer double discrimination. "Our own community is paternalistic and we are part of an Arab minority that is discriminated against. The main discrimination is in resources."

While predominantly Jewish major cities have centres that encourage people with disabilities to live independently, Nazareth does not. He says the facilities are poor in Arab towns and villages not only because they have smaller budgets than Jewish towns but also because the municipalities themselves do not consider it a priority. He adds that the Israeli government must create more opportunities in the labour market for Arabs with disabilities.

As part of its outreach, Al Manarah runs workshops in schools so that pupils will have a positive attitude to people with disabilities. "The message of the workshops, which are facilitated by people with disabilities, is that yes, there are differences between persons with disabilities and others but what they have in common is more than what they don't have in common. Both want to develop, to learn, to be included in the labour market, to have families. The message is of accepting the other, including the other."

Mr Abbass says Al Manarah will use the UAE prize money to promote the library within Arab countries and to fund more voice artists from these countries.

He says the award has special significance as a kind of recognition of the Arab minority in Israel by the larger Arab world. "We are a minority in the Jewish state and Arabs in Arab countries don't know us enough. This shows that the Arab citizens of Israel can have an influential role for the whole Arab world," he says.

Yusuf Jabareen, a member of the Knesset, told The National: "The way is still long but Al Manarah was able to put the issues [of the disabled] on the agenda of our community and decision makers, including heads of Arab local authorities and members of the Knesset. We as a community are indebted to Abbass Abbass for the good work Al Manarah does to serve people with disabilities and the blind. He's an example of taking responsibility in your own community and also being a leader."