Abu Dhabi: Her Highness Dr Shariffa Al Said may have been visually impaired since birth, but that has not stopped her from chasing her dreams.
Today, Al Said is an educational expert at the Ministry of Education and oversees the ministry’s special education projects for students with disabilities in Oman.
Despite being born with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that leads to incurable blindness, Al Said went on to earn four degrees, including two masters qualifications and a PhD, all while living and working alone in the United States.
“I believe that because of my condition, I have had to work harder than normal people, but I have been rewarded with more than them in return,” recalled Al Said, speaking at the BETT Middle East Classroom of the Future conference, hosted at a special seminar dedicated to the education of differently-abled children. “The first thing I had to do when I went to the States was learn how to use a subway.
“I was afraid that someone might push me, but that never happened. I had never seen snow before, and because of my lack of sight, I had to rely on my sense of touch and my cane to figure out where I was going. Many times I lost the way to my apartment, but over time, I learned to do things for myself,” she added.
Despite her friends questioning her decision to move to New York, especially due to her condition, Al Said didn’t let her shortcomings dent her dreams. “In the States, the universities are very helpful towards those with disabilities, and I believe the same facilities are required in Oman as well, because I believe everybody is gifted. I have seen people unable to utter a word because of severe cerebral palsy unleashing their full creative and mental potential, when given a special computer to work with, and there are some truly gifted minds among them,” she explained.
According to Al Said, Oman lacks the infrastructure to deal with the concerns of the disabled, and she is working with institutions and the government to ensure positive changes take place. “A lot of positive changes have taken place, but we really need to educate the public to treat the blind as equal members of society. There are no elevators with Braille settings; there are no auditory ATM machines. Accessibility to buildings is not easy and footpaths are not friendly to those affected by blindness,” she
Although she is encouraging more blind people to use a cane while walking, Al-Said is aware that many people do not wish to do so because of the social stigma associated with disabilities. “The reason people have this stigma against disabled people is simply because they do not know much about it,” she said. “They think you have some sort of disease and are contagious, but I don’t have a dangerous disease. I am perfectly healthy; it’s just that I am blind and therefore slightly different from you.”
Al Said urged the people to change their attitude towards the blind. “It’s not just in Oman; this attitude is present all around the world, and this needs to change. People still don’t know how to react to disabled people, but the simplest thing you can do to change that is ask them if they want help. They won’t feel insulted by it. In fact, they will thank you for it.”