While the digital world has revolutionized the way people access information, it is essential to ensure that these developments benefit everyone, including people with disabilities. For the blind and visually impaired, accessing a website, finding the description of a picture or reading a book online is often challenging. So what are the challenges they face and what are the solutions provided to them in Qatar?
This was the focus of a panel discussion organized by UNESCO Cluster Office for the Gulf States and Yemen with Qatar National Library and Sasol on 15 October 2018, to mark the Regional ITU-UNESCO Digital Inclusion Week and in light of the country's recent ratification of the Marrakech Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print-Disabled.
During the panel, Faisal Al Kooheji, Chairman of Qatar Social and Cultural Center for Blind, presented the services provided by the Qatar Social and Cultural Center for the Blind (QSCCB) including the provision of Braille printing free of charge. Jack Saba, General Manager of Public Affairs at Sasol, highlighted their flagship Accessible Qatar mobile app which locates, audits and ranks accessible places in Qatar and the subsequent work carried out with institutions to improve their accessibility.
Dr. Rashid Yahiaoui, Assistant Professor at the Translation and Interpreting Institute, emphasized the institute's work in providing audio description for movie screenings and organizing accessible art exhibitions in museums. For his part, Mohammad Al Fehaida, Communication and Marketing Officer at MADA talked about the support provided by Qatar's Assistive Technology Center for the blind, their families and carers and the trainings they provide to government agencies and private companies to make website accessible for the blind.
Dr. Nouf Khashman, Outreach and Community Engagement Manager at Qatar National Library, presented the Library's Book Club for the Blind and explained the implications of Qatar's ratification of the Marrakech Treaty and the expected benefits for the blind community, including increased and facilitated printing of books in Braille.Currently only some 1 to 7 per cent of the world’s published books ever make it into accessible formats.
Highlighting the main challenges they face to access information online, Faisal Al Kohaji and Mohammmed Fehaida cited the limited number of accessible websites and finding description of pictures, including on social media. When asked about the key recommendations they wanted to share with the public, the panelists stressed the need to make more books accessible for the blind, including online, challenge stereotypes and advocate for accessibility in schools, at work and in public places.
Prior to the panel discussion, a series of awareness raising films were launched by Accessible Qatar Ambassador Kholoud Abu Sharida, shedding light on the difficulties blind people face and challenging stereotypes about the blind and visually impaired. Following the screening, students from the Al Noor Institute for the Blind performed songs for the audience.
To raise awareness about the importance of inclusive access to information, the QSCCB brought a Braille printer and invited the audience to get their names printed in Braille to familiarize themselves with the tool and writing system used by blind people.
Anna Paolini, UNESCO Representative to the Gulf States and Yemen, said in her introductory remarks: “We need to ensure that everyone in society has access to information so they can fully realize their rights and reach their potential, including the blind and visually impaired. There are many successful initiatives in Qatar using technology to develop inclusive solutions for better inclusion in the digital and offline world. We are therefore very proud to partner with Qatar National Library and SASOL to highlight these initiatives and support the blind community in Qatar".
Commenting on the event, Phinda Vilakazi, President of GTL Ventures at Sasol said: "Sasol sees itself as an active partner and a good neighbor in the society. It always works to entrench values like inclusion and the right of all individuals to build the society. We are pleased with our partnership with UNESCO and QNL in this event, and we hope the films will leave a positive impact on people."