New technologies help people with disabilities at work in Oman
July 5, 2015 | 4:14 PM
For people with visual impairments there are Braille computers, voice applications to read text, screen readers and magnifying devices, just to name a few. Photo-O K Mohammed Ali

Muscat: Sheikha Al Jassasi types something on her laptop and a voice reads “w w w dot google dot com.” The voice helps her navigate to the search bar, and then reads out the results as she clicks through them. For Al Jassasi, who has been blind since birth, this voice makes using a computer possible.

Al Jassasi, who started as a translator and now works in the media department at the Information Technology Authority (ITA), says Assistive Technology has made a world of difference in the workplace. Her iPhone and computer both have voice applications that help her read emails and other documents, identify phone numbers, and use programs like the camera and YouTube.

Sheikha Al Jassasi working in the ITA media department. Photo-O K Mohammed Ali

“The technology is giving us a great opportunity to use our talents and work independently. I can use the computer as any normal person can use it and I can do my job as any other person,” explains Al Jassasi, who has a degree in English Translation from SQU.

Aisha Baabood, Executive Director of the White Hands Centre of Assistive Technology and Rehabilitation, says there are many devices available to help people with disabilities.

For people with visual impairments there are Braille computers, voice applications to read text, screen readers and magnifying devices, just to name a few. People with hearing impairments can use applications on their phones that translate sign language into text for others to read. People with mobility impairments or paralysis have a variety of wheelchairs now, some which are equipped with technology to allow users to access computers.

Baabood says both the employees and employers need to be assessed to ensure they have the right assistive technology so they don’t invest in the wrong kind, but when the proper technology is provided, it can make a big difference for people with disabilities on the job.

“We have to provide the right technology that can help [employees with disabilities] function better,” she explains.

Baabood encourages employers to follow the Omani labour law which states 2 per cent of employees should be people with disabilities, but also recommends they hire people who will be able to live up to their potential and not just fill quotas.

“You don’t want the person to feel frustrated or feel that they are just there because they are disabled. We want them to feel that they are valued and they are working because they are needed,” she says.

Ahmed Al Ramadhani, Director General of Human Resources at the ITA, says Al Jassasi and another blind employee, Ali Al Amri, were not just hired in accordance with the law but because they were also top graduates at Sultan Qaboos University who would benefit the organisation.

Ahmed Al Ramadhani, Director General of Human Resources at the Information Technology Authority. Photo-O K Mohammed Ali

“We believe everyone has something to give. If they can be creative, if they can be flexible at work, if they are willing to learn more in their fields, then ITA is welcoming and encouraging those talents. Sheikha and Ali are both brilliant and they exceeded our expectations,” he explains.

The ITA had to invest in some Assistive Technology such as voice activated elevators and special computer applications but Al Ramadhani says it was well worth it. He says in the future the organisation would be happy to hire other people with disabilities, assuming they had the talents and skills required, and invest in technologies to help them.

“They’re our employees so definitely the ITA will invest in them. The investment wasn’t really an issue for the ITA since the ITA encourages the use of technology in all levels. The ITA even subsidises some equipments for other organisations, the blind organisations and those who are in need of such technologies,” he says.

Al Ramadhani says it’s important for companies to empower employees with disabilities so they can perform to their utmost potential and he encourages other organisations to hire talented people with disabilities and invest in them as the ITA has done.

“My advice to them is to not hesitate to recruit these people because they are at the end our brothers and our sisters so we have to find a place for them in the society and in the workplace and business environment. Each one of them has certain capabilities where they can really give more in that field...and there are technologies in the market to allow them to do their jobs,” he says.

Barka Shahbal Al Bakry, a founding member of Al Noor Association for the Blind, says the situation for people with disabilities in Oman has definitely improved over the years. There are more associations catering to different disabilities and more education and work opportunities.

She says more progress has been made in terms of education and employments. Until 2002 Oman used to send blind people to study in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia but the education was minimal.

“The education they received was very basic and did not prepare them for employment. As a result until five years ago most of them were employed as telephone operators. With development of technology, this profession is no longer in demand as it used to be, so we had to look for alternative opportunities,” Al Bakry explains.

“The development in technology and specially programs for the blind, has made a huge difference and opened new horizons,” she adds.

Now blind people, and others with disabilities, are studying more and earning degrees that make them strong candidates for the workforce. Al Bakry says a number of Omanis with visual impairments are currently doing postgraduate studies in a variety of subjects including IT and International Relations. Companies are also recruiting graduates with disabilities who have proven themselves as top students.

“Slowly we are gaining recognition in the market too. The best employers today [are] the Information Technology Authority (ITA) and Ooredoo telecom company,” Al Bakry notes.

Back at the ITA Al Jassasi says she hopes one day to be in a managerial position where she can be a role model and leader for others in the company. She says disabilities should not prevent people from going out and following their dreams, especially since there are many Assistive Technologies to help them.

She says people with disabilities should work hard to improve themselves, learn how to use the Assistive Technologies, and go out and find the right job opportunities rather than waiting for others to find jobs for them. Thanks to new technology, people with disabilities don’t have to be restricted from the workplace.

“I wouldn’t have dreamed that I would have a job in translation, for example, if the screen reader did not exist. The Assistive Technology has really created many new job opportunities for us,” Al Jassasi says.

Reporter can be reached at [email protected]

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