Egypt’s visually impaired students receive a helping hand

Ghada Abdel-Kader , Monday 2 Aug 2021

The first of its kind in Egypt, an app was launched at Zagazig University containing all the textbooks and recorded lectures by faculty members

Student with visual impairment read by running his fingers over the Braille text. Photo courtesy of Lily Attallah

“Unsighted students suffer badly in scientific subjects at university. Not all the academic textbooks are printed in Braille format. Sometimes, the books are delivered late. Students do not have enough time to study before exams,” Lily Attallah, executive director of the Development Association for Empowering Special Needs (DAESN) told Ahram Online.

“Students do not have privacy in exams. They feel degraded and waste a lot of time,” Attallah added.

Sightless students have difficulty reading and writing the answers during exams. They need employees from the students’ affairs department to do the task for them. Sometimes, the employees do not understand the questions or they may write the answers incorrectly.

DAESN Executive Director Lily Attallah signed the protocol with Vice-President of Education and Students Affairs Atef Khalifa in the presence of the President of El-Zagazig University Othman Shalaan and FDRS Dean Ihab El-Beblawi. Photo courtesy of Lily Attallah

DAESN signed a collaboration agreement with Zagazig University, Sharqiya governorate, in May to launch an electronic university application to serve students with complete visual impairment.
The programme will be applied at the different colleges of Zagazig University. It is funded by Ataa Charitable Investment Fund for supporting people with disabilities, the first fund of its kind in Egypt.

Maher, former CEO of DAESN Mary Zaki, Executive Director of Ataa charity Investment Fund Amira El-Refaei and El-Beblawi. Photo courtesy of Lily Attallah

DAESN is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that began working in 2008. Its mission is to develop the full potential of visually impaired people to lead independent lives and ensure their equal rights and dignity. It tries to integrate the visually impaired into the education system.

Student with visual impairment read by running his fingers over the Braille text.Photo courtesy of Lily Attallah

The application DAESN-Ataa is being tested from May 2021 to April 2022.

Students deprived from vision or with disabilities enter theoretical, not practical, colleges. Unsighted students from the faculties of arts, commerce, law, education, and disability and rehabilitation sciences will have the academic content on this app.

“Fifty undergraduate and post-graduate students with complete visual impairment from Zagazig University will benefit from this app. This is a huge number of students in universities,” said Ihab El-Beblawi, the coordinator of the project and dean of the Faculty of Disability and rehabilitation Sciences (FDRS) at Zagazig University.

FDRS is for students with mental or physical disabilities. The faculty has two programmes. “Faculty graduates can work as teachers or category specialists. It also accepts disabled students too,” El-Beblawi added.

The app includes all the textbooks and recorded lectures by faculty members. Lecture summaries are converted into audio files and reference lists,” El-Beblawi stated.

“It is obligatory for the deans and heads of different departments to upload all the subjects on the app,” he added.

One of the main obstacles in building the app was to protect the data from hackers, malware, and other threats. “It has a high level of security in order to protect the intellectual property of the university and prevent the theft of e-books,” said Hany Nader, the designer of the app.

The app is multilingual, which allows the learners to read the text in any language. “The app opens new opportunities for blind students to join any foreign language departments in different colleges,” Nader explained.

He emphasised that it is a small-sized app. It can be installed on a computer, tablet, or mobile phone. The app can also describe and explain images “so that visionless students using a screen reader can listen to what the image is all about. It also reads the majority of Arabic texts with diacrisation,” Nader added.

DAESN will equip the lab for students with visual disabilities with 10 new computers and seven mobile devices. The devices have speaking programmes and the operating systems necessary to train students and university administrators on the app to ensure quality service.

Younan Samir has been visually impaired since he was a child. He has a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Arts, history department. He has been working with people with visual impairment for 12 years.

“Students will receive practical training and apply what they have learned. They will type faster than their sighted peers, he added.

Samir is a marketing organiser and public affairs employee at DAESN and one of the team on the project.

He explained that students will learn to use regular computer keyboards. Users will acquire the knowledge to type accurately by using keyboard shortcut commands to navigate quickly. The students also become competent in touch-typing skills. These functions are available in all new computers.

Five teaching assistants and three assistant lecturers from the education technology department at the Faculty of Specific Education will train to be responsible for the project in the future.

“Students will be trained for one month before the beginning of the new academic year, while IT university administrators will be trained for two weeks,” said Remon Maher, a blind computer training instructor from DAESN Association.

“Sightless students will take their exams electronically by mid-term 2022,” El-Beblawi added.

At the end of the year Zigzag University, DAESN and Ataa Fund will evaluate and monitor the results. “Ataa Fund will present results for the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Then, the ministry will begin addressing different universities to apply it broadly,” El-Beblawi said.

The app is only the beginning of many more projects to come, El-Beblawi confirmed.

“Zagazig University is discussing a new project with Ataa Fund for supporting people with disabilities,” he added.

El-Beblawi concluded that Zagazig University will provide all the possible facilities as special corridors or pathways, signs along footpaths, tactile ground surface indicators, Braille elevator buttons, stairs and sidewalk ramps for students with disabilities to easily reach their faculties.


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