At the recent
assistive technology conference in San Diego, ABILITYs
Chet Cooper and Lia Limón Martirosyan caught up with Sheikha
Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi and Amal Al-Khamis. Theyd flown
in from Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Sheikha Jameela is the vice president of the Supreme Council for Family
Affairs and director general of Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services.
Al-Khamis is one of her uber volunteers.
Chet Cooper: Does Sheikha mean princess?
Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi: In Saudi Arabia, which is
a kingdom, there is a king and queen, princesses and princes. But
the seven United Arab Emirates used to be seven different tribes.
Here, the Sheikh is the head of the tribe. His wife is called Sheikha
and the little ones will also be called Sheikh and Sheikha when they
grow up. Its more like Mr. and Mrs; its a title.
Cooper: How did you get involved with your organizations?
Sheikha Jameela: When I graduated from Chico State University in California
and came home, the ruler of Sharjahwho happens to be my brother-in-lawthought
these organizations would be a good fit for me.
I had strong views about everything and wanted to change some things.
I had a passion for working with people, especially children, so my
brother-in-law appointed me director general of our Humanitarian Services.
Cooper: You were a psychology major?
Sheikha Jameela: I was pre-med initially, but found that psychology
interested me more.
Cooper: You could have been a psychiatrist.
Sheikha Jameela: I could have been, but studying biology required
working long hours in the lab in teams. When I came to the States
at 17 years old, I didnt know anyone, so it was difficult to
Then I took a psychology class, which was a prerequisite for the biology
major and I thought, this is what I want to do. And I changed my major
in the first year, which was not popular back home, because they sent
me all the way to the US to major in medicine not psychology. I could
have studied psychology much closer to home in Cairo or Kuwait. So
my family was angry, but I insisted and ultimately everything worked
Cooper: Have you been able to expand services since youve taken
Sheikha Jameela: At the time, we had 60 students. We had a school
for the deaf and a few classes. We started connecting with people
from Belgium where they had a system called the Verbotonal method
for teaching deaf students; it uses rhythm. Its also a method
for teaching a second language to anyone. It depends on body movement,
musical rhythm and language games.
Weve chosen to teach language to students who are deaf. We think
that through the use of language they will be more included in society
and in closer communication with people. But we also know that we
need to teach them sign language, so weve introduced that. They
were already signing outside the classroom. Within the classroom,
we depend on speech, lip-reading and hearing with the residual hearing
that they have.
Lia Limón Martirosyan: Do the students move on to universities
from the center?
Sheikha Jameela: The school for the deaf now has 7 students in universities,
which is a first in our region.
Martirosyan: Is the sign language they learn Arabic or universal?
Sheikha Jameela: We have a unified Arabic sign language, but its
controversial. Many of them dont want to use unified language;
they want to use their own local sign language.
Martirosyan: Thats understandable.
Sheikha Jameela: But at some point, we all have to speak the same
Cooper: I traveled on what was, at the time, the largest cruise
ship in the world. An organization contracted it for a week for a
group that brought on 3,000 people who were deaf. I got invited, but
I dont sign, so I was the odd person out. There were people
from all these different countries. Sometimes there would be a group
of us and there would be interpreters of the interpreters of the interpreter.
We laughed about it, but it was an interesting dynamic. Even people
from England have a different sign language than American Sign Language.
People from Japan, from Korea, they all had a different one. To find
a way to communicate within that large group was just amazing.
Sheikha Jameela: The Arab world pretty much speaks the same classical
Arabic. We have different dialects, just like you have different dialects
in the States.
Cooper: Yeah, but we dont understand people from New Jersey.
Martirosyan: Does the Arab world have a similar controversy with cochlear
implants as we do in the States, in which some people believe its
okay and others say its the wrong thing to do?
Sheikha Jameela: Some say, We dont want it for our kids,
but many parents would want it for their children if they were really
Cooper: Its a global challenge.
Sheikha Jameela: Yes, the deaf community says: We are deaf,
we want to keep our community strong without being in the middle,
not deaf and not hearing.
Cooper: So you use the term deaf and hard of hearing?
In the US, they dont like the term hearing-impaired.
They prefer hard of hearing, they dont like the
word impaired because theres a stigma attached.
Is that the case in the UAE?
Sheikha Jameela: Whenever there is a meeting or a conference we have
a big debate on what terms to use. We have the School for the Deaf.
And from there we started taking kids who are deaf and who are six
or seven years old or less, because before that they would only take
kids who are older than seven. Were also trying to educate the
community and hold events to raise funds for our program.
We had a lot of families with children with disabilities who were
coming to us. They told us: We dont know where to take
our kids. So then we started a school for children with cognitive
and developmental disabilities. We also started to offer physical
therapy. After that, we began opening branches in other areas of Sharjah
and now we have three branches throughout our emirate.
Cooper: Are you planning to establish centers throughout the UAE?
Sheikha Jameela: We work only in the emirate of Sharjah. There are
centers in places such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but we have children
of all ages coming to us from different places, including Amman, Jordan
and Yemen. Children can be any age and any nationality. It doesnt
matter if they are Christian or Muslim. We use Arabic as our main
medium of education, but for certain services, like physical therapy,
or fitting them with aids, we dont need language; we just give
them the services.
Cooper: Do you charge for services?
Sheikha Jameela: Not in the beginning, but now we need to grow and
the funds are important.
Cooper: Is it a sliding scale or one cost for everyone?
Sheikha Jameela: Its a sliding scale.
Cooper: So if somebody comes in whos financially capable they
would have one cost, but if somebody comes in who cant financially
Sheikha Jameela: We find someone to cover their fees. About 80 percent
of our students pay only a portion of the fee. Parents need to know
that its important for their kids with disabilities to get an
education. But if the brother or sister of a child with a disability
is going to a private school where they have to pay, for instance,
20,000 or 50,000 AED a year and for their child with a disability,
were asking for 5,000 to 8,000 AED, the parents might say, I
dont want to pay for this kid because hes not learning.
We want them to understand that their children are the same and all
deserve to reach their full potential.
Cooper: In the States, school systems often try to take the easy way
out, so parents have to become advocates and fight for their kids
with disabilities. As you say, there is a great deal of potential
that shouldnt be squandered.
Sheikha Jameela: Its even harder for us, because our educational
system and teachers have no information about working with kids with
disabilities. Theyre just starting to learn. Thats why
theyre resisting the inclusion programs the Ministry of Education
is trying to implement. It will take a few years, but at least weve
Our services have evolved. We started with one kid with autism in
a class and now we have a separate center for people with cognitive
disabilities. Now there are sports and cultural clubs for people with
disabilities licensed by the Ministry of Youth. We encourage young
people to advocate for themselves and give them a place under our
Cooper: Mada, Qatars Assistive Technology Center, has an innovative
funding model: A lot of their budget comes from a small tax levied
by their phone company. In Sharjah, one penny or some small amount
could be embedded into peoples phone bills.
Sheikha Jameela: They certainly wouldnt miss that.
Cooper: I think thats how Mada grew so fast. They have 20 people
on their staff and theyre a new organization. That kind of model
could make your projects sustainable, but you would have to get a
hold of the people within your legislature and convince them that
the idea has merit.
Sheikha Jameela: Well try that. We get some funding from phone
companies, like theyll buy a bus for us, but thats not
enough. We do offer some workshops that produce a product. We also
have books. The ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi,
is a historian who writes books and all the proceeds from them benefit
Every year he writes one or two books. Hes our patron. And he
has great ideas. For instance, when we had a piece of land he advised
us: Dont build schools on the streets, opposite the main
roads. Build shops there and rent them out. It was a simple
idea that works. We now have two buildings behind these shops. We
also own billboards that we rent out to businesses.
Martirosyan: That is so good. And you rent out the buildings?
Sheikha Jameela: Yes. Were always thinking sustainability. We
dont want the day to come where we cant pay our teachers
because weve gone through that before; for two months we couldnt
pay salaries. But now we have our employees and budget. Weve
To raise money, every year we have two or three events where we get
sponsors; then theres the used book fair, where we collect books
from the community and resell them at low prices. School children
participate in this, too, gathering the books for us. Proceeds go
to the education of people with disabilities.
Cooper: Very enterprising. Have you considered creating opportunities
for people with disabilities to become entrepreneurs?
Sheikha Jameela: We just held an entrepreneurship program for women
with disabilities. The funding came from the US Culture Office. We
gave them training on how to start projects and then chose three projects
to fund. We also send young people out to look for jobs and make sure
that the environment they work in is safe and supportive. We always
host workshops for vocational training.
Cooper: So youre developing manpower?
Martirosyan: And womanpower.
Sheikha Jameela: More womanpower.
Martirosyan: How many people do you employ?
Sheikha Jameela: We have a staff of 480.
Sheikha Jameela: And over the course of a year we serve about 3,000
or more, providing different services. Weve worked with the
phone company to give young people who are deaf lower prices on their
phone rates because they have to do video-conferencing, which costs
them more. We were the first ones to train people with disabilities
to drive and to work with the traffic department to get them licensed.
Cooper: Have you seen any technologies that you might want to take
back and introduce to your center?
Sheikha Jameela: We were mostly interested in communications devices,
especially for people with cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities.
Educational and communication tools are most important to us at this
Martirosyan: Have you seen some of the technology that the cellphone
companies offer, like closed captioning?
Sheikha Jameela: I have, another priority for us is video captioning.
Cooper: Adobe is researching different products using the Arabic language.
Sheikha Jameela: This area is challenging. Even optical character
recognition used to be hard. I was trying to scan material in Arabic.
But even after youve scanned it, you have to work a few hours
to correct the words. We used to have a central interpretation place
where if people who were deaf needed to call government offices or
the court, there was a person who could help interpret for them. But
that person left the company and the project died.
Cooper: That happens here, too. A person leaves, the project dies.
Have you done anything with music therapy?
Sheikha Jameela: We just had a training program with Korea University.
Cooper: Did they teach you to do it Gangnam Style?
Sheikha Jameela: You should see the Arab version of that on YouTube....
in ABILITY Magazine
City for Humanitarian Services
a Free Digi Issue and read the full magazine, and see all of the photos,
by clicking "Like"
from the Andy
Derek Paravicini Hes Got the Keys to the World
Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi
China Wang Kun Overcoming Obstacles
ANDY Music + Charity
= Millions of Fans
Team Quincy Jones Spreading Musics Roots
An Accessible Fun-der-land
Accountability Employing People with Disabilities
in the Andy Madadian Issue; Senator Harkin The Deaf President
Movemen; Ashley Fiolek From Pigging Out to Nutrition Classes;
Humor Part II of the Greek Geek Adventure; Candida
The Hands She Was Dealt; Derek Paravicini Hes
Got the Keys to the World; Geri Jewell Next Exit, Joy; Seizure
Dog She Nose When; Long Haul Paul What the Farkle?;
China Wang Kun Overcoming Obstacles for Art; Sharjahs
Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi; Accountability
Employing People with Disabilities; ANDY Music + Charity =
Millions of Fans; QJMC Team Quincy Jones Spreading Musics
Roots; Morgans Wonderland An Accessible Fun-der-land;
DRLC The Blame Game in Gun Control ; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle;
Events and Conferences...