At the age of three, Ahmed Fayez, now 28, suffered from a severe problem in his eyes. After three failed surgeries in his right eye, his parents refused to go for another operation in his left eye. The decision saved the only eye he could see with.
At six, Fayez was not accepted in school which was about two hours from his home; he was considered totally blind. So he entered a boarding school for blind children.
But vision in his left eye deteriorated because his teacher covered it, as if he were blind. It was there he learned how to use Braille.“I thought I was totally blind,” Fayez said. For several years Fayez thought he was blind until he joined an educational programme in the US.
“In the US, I joined a public school where I knew I could see and was introduced to a low-vision specialist who taught me how to use a white cane,” Fayez recounts.
Fayez received an American diploma and when he returned to Egypt in 2008 he passed the Thanaweya Amma high school exam. He then graduated from the American University in Cairo after receiving a scholarship. Later, he finally operated on his left eye.
Fayez told his story to an audience at the First Regional Low Vision Conference held by the Baseera Foundation for the visually impaired (baseera means vision in Arabic).
Baseera is a non-profit organisation founded in 2004 to empower and enable the visually impaired Egyptian community to realise their abilities and become independent.
“The lack of awareness and diagnosis affects society. We should support families to rehabilitate their children and integrate them into society,” Egypt’s Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali told the conference.
Fayez currently works as a communications specialist in the National Bank of Egypt. He believes that Baseera is trying to change the way people think. “How to make good use of remaining eyesight is the goal,” Fayez said.
Sawsan Al-Messiri, chairwoman of the board of the Baseera Foundation, said that among the shocking facts is the lack of statistics on individuals with reduced vision.
In Egypt they are rarely diagnosed while those who suffer severe visual impairment are considered and treated as blind people, Al-Messiri said.
“Moreover there is not a sufficient number of specialists to deal with the visually impaired nor are there proper services provided to them,” Al-Messiri added.
According to estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is one blind person for every three with impaired vision.
“Four per cent of the Egyptian population suffers from vision disability; 50 per cent can be saved by early intervention,” Doaa Mabrouk, co-founder and managing director of Baseera, said at the beginning of the conference.
“Rehabilitation of low vision is about maximising participation, care and education. Rehabilitation is about optimising participation,” said renowned Finnish ophthalmologist Lea Hyvarinen at the conference.
Hyvarinen is known for her LH Vision test, a series of paediatric tests designed specifically for children who do not know how to read the letters of the alphabet that are typically used in eye charts. The system was named using her initials.
Mustafa Al-Cherbini, consultant ophthalmologist and member of the board at Baseera, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the concept of the conference was to build awareness on low vision.
“We can help diagnose and maybe treat, now and in the future. We started screening campaigns in various districts all over Egypt,” Al-Cherbini said.
Causes of low vision may vary. Al-Cherbini believes there is a strong need to change the tradition of inter-family marriages, one of the most common ways of transmitting genetic eye diseases, the leading cause of low vision.
Lamiaa Mohsen, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at New Giza University, believes that “55 per cent of low vision cases can be prevented if pregnant women check for diabetes because it affects the child’s vision.”
Al-Cherbini called on the need for institutions such as universities, the government and NGOs to put together a global plan to help people with low vision.
“We need to understand that whatever efforts are exerted to save one child is a great success,” he said. To that end, Al-Sherbini said he and his colleagues are out to find children with impairments.
Comprehensive screening for school children is the main method to achieve the goal. Samia Serri, Baseera rehabilitation centre manager, told the Weekly that Baseera has a partnership with the Dutch-based Visio Rehabilitation and Advice which deals with early diagnosis and raising awareness.
The Baseera team succeeded in screening about 20,000 school children in Beni Sweif, a governorate in Upper Egypt, during 2018.
“After the screening we discovered that 2,000 children needed eye glasses, 4,000 needed medicine and 100 needed minor and major surgery,” Serri said.
(Photo: Courtesy of Baseera Foundation official Facebook page)
Furthermore, she said they are targeting the screening of 20,000 children in primary schools and nurseries in Aswan before January 2019.
She added that the process continues with awareness campaigns for teachers in all governorates.
The conference aimed at raising awareness of people with low vision “because they are considered either blind or normal,” she said. By February, Baseera will open the first low vision centre in Egypt.
Hossam Abdel-Ghaffar, chairman of the Supreme Council of University Hospitals, believes that 80 per cent of the causes of low vision can be avoided.
“Rehabilitation makes life better for many people with special needs,” Abdel-Ghaffar said.
According to Joost Heutink, director of the International Division at Royal Dutch Visio, a centre which services the blind and visually impaired people of all ages, especially those with more than one disability, rehabilitation is all about participation in life.
Heutink explained his model of participation. Being blind or having a visual impairment should not mean that a person cannot fully participate in work, education, society or any other activity, he said. “What matters in rehabilitation is the activities and participation. Rehabilitation is about optimising participation.”
Improving vision starts with “motivation — to be independent — and to train the person as soon as he or she can,” Heutink said.
Parallel to the concept of participation comes the importance of the details in daily life. Bart Melis, a clinical physicist, spoke of the importance of the use of colour and contrast on streets and buildings to help the impaired move easier.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Walking with vision