Bridging the abyss

Published April 23, 2014

DESCRIBING his experience of blindness, Prof John Hull of Birmingham University and author of On Sight and Insight, says that people see blindness as an attribute. Hull, who lost his vision more than 30 years ago, thinks differently. According to him, the blind have their world as the sighted have theirs. But those who can see exclude the blind from the world of the sighted. The two worlds do not meet. Hull has a strong yearning to “overcome the abyss which divides the blind from the sighted”.

This fact is something not everyone understands. Those who do are inclusive and work to bridge this gap. One such institution that is exemplary in this context is the Almaktoom Centre in Islamabad. Since 1982 this school has been enrolling children with visual disability to provide them education to enable them to become self-reliant adults.

Today Almaktoom has 300 students on its rolls. Since 1995 the school has been sending children for the matriculation examination of the Federal Board. A number of these girls and boys go on to study in college and graduate to take up jobs and become useful members of society. Talal Waheed, who studied at Almaktoom, later graduated from Namal College and is now working with Unicef in a project to care for elderly people. Another alumnus, Ammara Anwar, is attached with the Pakistan Federation Fighting Blindness and records audio books.

Almaktoom’s teaching staff of 30 has six members who are vision impaired. They do a wonderful job of guiding the children into an adult’s world that is not as protective as they have known.

My visit to Almaktoom was an inspiring experience. The credit for running the centre with such efficiency and compassion on a limited budget goes to Rubina Anjum, the principal who was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz for her services to special children. She has been with Almaktoom since 2001.

This is a public-sector organisation, yet Rubina Anjum has managed to keep at bay the apathy and inefficiency usually characterising government bodies. She takes pride in her school and the children coming from among the poorest of the poor. To supplement government funds she raises public donations to provide students free uniforms, books and outings. A Braille library organised by librarian Shah Mohammad Afzal keeps the children well supplied with reading material in Braille.

The importance of inclusiveness emphasised by Prof Hull is evident at Almaktoom in the art activities conducted there. Funkor, an art centre for children run by Fauzia Minallah, an artist with a compassionate heart, has supplied art material to the school. Fauzia, a staunch defender of inclusiveness, asks, “Why should a child who cannot see be denied the joy of self-expression through art?”

To answer the question she obtained tactile material and taught children with vision impairment to feel the shape of objects and then draw them by touching the impression of the lines they sketch on special paper. The Amai park that Fauzia and her friends developed in Almaktoom is also designed to provide a safe space for the special children to play around freely in, like any child with normal vision.

Rubina has included music in the school curricula to draw children with visual disability into the world of the sighted. Shahid Nadeem, who played an exquisite melody on the flute for me, is from Gilgit. Music is certainly something that connects the sightless and the sighted.

Another inclusive activity is blind cricket that is a part of the centre’s sports programme. Syed Sultan Shah, the president of the World Blind Cricket Council as well as the captain of the Pakistan blind cricket team, is the coach in Almaktoom. He explained the intricate mechanism and rules of blind cricket and it did me proud to learn from Sultan that Pakistan has so far played 13 international series and won 11.

Almaktoom and Funkor are the outstanding exceptions in a place where Zahid Abdullah has to title his book Disabled by Society. Being inclusive is not the same as being compassionate. One has to be compassionate to be inclusive. But one can also be compassionate without being inclusive.

Why do schools for sighted children — they don’t actually describe themselves as such — not admit children with visual disabilities to study with students with 20/20 vision? Why don’t many examination boards allow vision impaired children to appear for exams with an amanuensis to write for them? Why don’t human rights bodies champion with equal vigour the cause of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities which Pakistan has signed and ratified but never implemented?

Prof Hull has a point there when he says, “To gain our full humanity, the blind and the sighted need each other.”

www.zubeidamustafa.com

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