Interview with Hasan Tayem

hasan running paintiing

Hasan Tayem is a blind international runner, assistive technology specialist, consultant, and human rights advocate from Jordan. At 24 years old, he’s also something of a wunderkind. Born blind, he began to use computers at a young age and soon became enamored with assistive technology. His twin passions for sports and advocacy blossomed later, while he was in college at the University of Jordan, Amman. He’s volunteered with UNICEF and other companies and NGOs across the region as well as the Jordanian government. In 2019, he graduated with a bachelor’s in English and Italian, and in 2021, the Italian government awarded him a scholarship to study human rights and multilevel governance at the University of Padova. He’s now based in Italy, earning a master’s and pursuing his dreams.

Itto Outini: Hasan! How are you doing? Can you introduce yourself, please?

Hasan Tayem: Good, good! Introduce myself…okay. I’m Hasan. I’m 24. I’m doing a Master’s in Italy. I did a bachelor’s in English and Italian back in Jordan. Coming here to Italy has been my long-term dream.

Itto: Congratulations! Why Italy?

Hasan: I love the language and the culture. Also, I love to travel. I always travel for my running competitions.

Itto: How did you get into running?

Hasan: I got into sports in high school and took it up to the professional level at the university. I’ve participated in competitions across Jordan, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. We’re talking about five-, 10-, 22-kilometer runs. Also, I did 42 kilometers, a full marathon, three years ago in Lebanon.

Itto: And your disability?

Hasan: Oh, right! I forgot about that one! I was born totally blind. I can see light, but not objects. Not things.

Itto: I’m also blind, and I used to love running, just not at the professional level. Can you describe what it’s like, competing as a blind runner?

Hasan: As you may know, we run with guides. Sometimes we hold hands, sometimes we have a piece of rope, a cable or something connecting us, so we don’t lose each other. The guide should be stronger, somehow, in case we need a push, physically or psychologically.

Itto: That one’s very important! Once, in Morocco, I was running in a race, and my guide wasn’t strong, and I wanted to win, so I bit him.

Hasan: You bit him?

Itto: I bit him! And he let go, and I just went all around running! I nearly died! I ran into traffic! [laughter]

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Hasan: Did you win the race, then?

Itto: No, no, it was the last time for me to run. After that I was banned. [laughter]

Hasan: For me, I’ve never done that.

Itto: That’s good. You wouldn’t have been able to compete in all those competitions. Can you tell us more about that?

Hasan: Since 2016, I won first place in the Amman Marathon and the Red Sea Marathon, Visually Impaired Category, I’ve won the Beirut Marathon twice and I’ve won medals in Asia, two in Malaysia, and then more recently in Turkey and Italy.

Itto: Then it’s good you like to travel.

Hasan: Traveling is part of my journey. I love to visit new countries, meet new people, learn new languages. Every country I’ve visited, I’ve enjoyed.

Itto: Which place has been your favorite, so far?

Hasan: I would say, Malaysia. The first time I went, I was only 18. I stayed for a month. The second time, I went for running camp and stayed a month and a half. That taught me a lot about independence. I traveled all around the country that summer. That made me comfortable living on my own, away from home and my family and friends and people I’d always known.

Itto: What’s your favorite part of travel?

Hasan: For me, it’s all about the language and the culture. When you travel, you run into new ways of doing things, even new ways of thinking. In the beginning, it might be a little bit hard, but the more time you spend with the people, the more involved you get, the more you start to understand. Wherever I go, I always try to get involved, to make some positive impact and exchange some culture. In Malaysia, for example, I participated in a volunteer group at a blind school. I helped them organize activities. 

Itto: What’s your process for learning new languages?

Hasan: It’s interesting. Speaking different languages makes my brain work in different ways. For example, when I speak Arabic, I have a different way of dealing with things. It’s automatically implemented in my mind. When I speak Italian, it’s totally different. When I speak English, it’s totally different again. It’s like forcing your brain to multitask, which is great because that’s how life is. There’s always more than one thing going on. You need a lot of different strategies and tools.

Itto: And it helps with learning culture. 

Hasan: Of course! The language and the culture go together. You can’t learn one without the other; it wouldn’t make sense. You won’t be able to deal with real people. For example, I recently started learning German, and to communicate with Germans, you don’t just have to know the language; you must understand that German people are strict on time. They have strict social rules. If you don’t know that, you’ll end up in bad situations.

Itto: Do you think there’s a connection between disability and travel and multilingualism? I’m thinking of blindness, especially.

Hasan: Yes, I know what you mean. If you’re blind and you decide to travel alone in some new country where your language isn’t spoken, without learning theirs, you’re going to end up…I don’t even know where! [laughs] You must be able to ask for help, ask for directions, communicate with people. I think it forces us to learn. English, especially, because it’s the lingua franca–if you’re blind and don’t know English, I really recommend you learn. I encourage everyone who’s reading…but I suppose this will be written in English.

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Itto: Yes, but our readers might know someone.

Hasan: Exactly. If you know someone who doesn’t speak English, especially if they’re blind and they want to travel and be independent, English is a must. You should encourage them, to learn and to travel. But know it’s not just getting on a plane and going someplace. You must face a lot of things. You must get lost. You must miss trains. You must have fun!

Itto: How about the challenges you face professionally, as a blind international runner?

Hasan: The big one’s the same challenge everyone faces money. Getting sponsored is hard.

Itto: How do you overcome that?

Hasan: You must surround yourself with good people. That’s really, really important. The people around you give you the support–financially, sometimes, but more importantly, psychologically. Some people give you encouragement, some give you strategies to move yourself forward when you’re stuck or lost.

Itto: Speaking of the people around you, how do you feel about this issue of disability and assimilation versus…I mean, in some places, they want to throw everyone together, disabled and non-disabled, and in others, they want to keep people separate and give each person what they think they need. Which do you think is better? How is it done in Jordan?

Hasan: It depends on the disability. For deaf and blind, they don’t really mix them; they each have their own schools. Mental disabilities, it’s the same. For wheelchair users, they mix them with the general population. If you ask me, I think mixing is better. I don’t really think there should be something called “disabled” or “non-disabled” at all.

Itto: Labeling accomplishes nothing. 

Hasan: It’s just a way to organize the world. This just came to my mind, and I wanted to say it: we all have differences, we all have things we do and things we can’t do, so why call some of us “disabled”? The problem I’ve seen in Jordan–and I believe it’s happening all across the Arab world–is people putting labels on things they don’t understand, trying to help when they don’t really have the experience or the knowledge. 

Itto: It’s the same all over the world. Just different degrees.

Hasan: Exactly. For example, recently, the government tried to build a safe pathway for the visually impaired on campus at the University of Jordan. The idea was for blind people to get around campus on their own, without someone guiding them. They put in maybe 1,500 meters of bright yellow tile. The project cost a lot of money, but in the end, we’re not using this lane. It has bumps, it has stairways, people put trash cans in the way…it’s not even for the totally blind. We wasted our effort and money for nothing because they just asked people who don’t have experience.

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Itto: How do you think we can start making change? In Jordan, in the Middle East, and all across the world?

Hasan: This might sound simple, but it starts with the family. Parents should first educate themselves and then their children. They should learn there’s no difference between you, as a child, and this blind person walking on the street, or studying in your school. That would push this generation, the educated generation, to know how to deal with people with disabilities in the future.

Itto: What about for parents of children with disabilities?

Hasan: It’s the same. Also, don’t try to hide your children. Don’t ever try to hide your children. If you’re afraid because of shame, or because your kid might face discrimination–if you hide your children, you’rethe one who’s making the discrimination. You’re the one destroying your son’s or daughter’s future.

Itto: I agree.

Hasan: I always tell people, for example, if their child is blind, and they don’t want to let him cross the road, I tell them, “No.” I tell them, “If you’re afraid, you’re the one making your child afraid. You should give him the courage to go.” That’s how I was raised. I was always playing, going around, falling down and splitting my face, and it was fine! No one ever told me, “You’re blind, so you should be afraid.” If someone said this to me, it would’ve given me a very bad impression of my life and my family.

Itto: How are these attitudes affecting people with disabilities in Jordan, and across the Arab world?

Hasan: I can only speak for Jordan. In Jordan, something like 11 to 15 percent of the population have disabilities. That’s a little over 1,000,000 people. Only 16 percent are employed, and only 10 percent of people in the workforce have disabilities. Those are the official statistics, but then, some people, maybe they don’t want to say, maybe they’re hiding their disabled children, so I’m sure it’s actually more.

Itto: And what about employment? Education?

Hasan: Officially, it’s something like 80 percent are not economically active. They’re classified as “inactive persons.” They don’t go to work; they don’t go to school–nothing. They just sit in their homes. Imagine!

Itto: That’s only the official statistic, again.

Hasan: Exactly. It’s probably more. Also, the data from 2014, 2015, so it’s hard to say how it is now, after the pandemic and everything.

Itto: What about representation? How are the media representing people with disabilities in Jordan?

Hasan: So, there are some media representations, but the way they deal with disability…it’s like, they don’t talk about inclusion. They don’t talk about the law. It’s more like, you know, “This is halal, this is haram, this person’s blind, so he’s going to heaven, we’ll just let him go and talk and do whatever he wants, but not give any opportunities to anyone.” I propose the media should talk more about things like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), universal design, employment, meeting people’s accessibility needs.

Itto: And why–

Hasan: Also–sorry, this just came to my mind–but it’s not just a media problem. It’s a problem some disabled people are creating, giving the media this reputation. Sometimes people go on the radio saying, “I’m poor, I’m blind, I cannot find a job” –well, I’m sorry, but it’s not because you’re blind! People who are blind can work. People who are not disabled can be inactive economically, too. Stop giving people this impression. I just…I don’t know. I get upset when people give this reputation.

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Itto: You said you’re a human rights advocate. What kind of advocacy? 

Hasan: I started at the university in Jordan, telling students and professors how to deal with people with disabilities. I would tell them it’s not about this disability, that disability; it’s about how different people live. Maybe this person’s short and this other one’s tall, this one’s white and this one’s brown–the real difference is in how we deal with life, which choices we make, which decisions.

Itto: Then you moved on to working with the government and nonprofit organizations?

Hasan: I started encouraging governments and NGOs to just apply our laws. Jordan ratified the CRPD in 2007. Since then, we’ve passed some new domestic laws, set up workplace quotas, even taken international loans. But unfortunately, most haven’t really been implemented. I started volunteering with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2019, leading the inclusive strategy for the youth sector. That was a great opportunity. I got exposed to different strategies and opinions, let me see how things are dealt with at a higher level.

Itto: What were you doing with UNICEF?

Hasan: My job was to design and implement strategies for the youth sector, with a focus on acceptance and inclusion. I also helped the Office of Human Resources make the volunteer program more accessible for people with disabilities. The youth program in Jordan was built on volunteering, but I faced some difficulties, when I was applying, with their online portal. Since I’m an accessibility specialist, I helped make their website accessible. Now anyone can join.

Itto: What’s the hardest project you’ve worked on?

Hasan: I would say, working with refugees with disabilities. UNICEF deals with refugee camps, and they have lots of people with disabilities, including children. One of the hardest points I remember, actually, was trying to convince the refugees with disabilities to participate in UNICEF’s programs.

Itto: Does Jordan have a program for young refugees with disabilities? Or for refugees with disabilities in general?

Hasan: Not for people with disabilities specifically, but now that it’s accessible, anyone can join their team. I’ve trained people working with them, managers and supervisors, and also people in the youth centers in the camps. Recently, I’ve been hearing from my former colleagues, and they say the program’s running smoothly. As I said, I’m in favor of mixing.

Itto: What another advocacy do you do? As an accessibility specialist, for example? 

Hasan: I love technology. I’ve been encouraged with it since I was young. Nowadays, with so many resources online, the world’s transformed. It gives us opportunities. A few years ago, I started contacting companies and offering my business strategies, things I learned from getting sponsored as a runner, and since then I’ve worked with a bunch of companies that provide software and hardware for blind people, helping with their products and their Middle East business and marketing strategies. I do technical translation, too, usually English to Arabic, for apps and websites designed for the blind, so people in the Middle East can use them. I’ve worked with Cash Reader, which is a mobile app that lets blind people recognize currencies. I’ve also worked with Clew and some other apps. If I list them all, we’re not going to finish, so—

Itto: [laughter] I understand! Speaking of which, we need to wrap things up. Is there anything else you’d like to share? Maybe, since you’re in Italy now, you could share what it means to have dreams and accomplish them.

Hasan: Sure. If you have a dream, my advice is to work hard, have patience and don’t give up. If you try something and it doesn’t work, try something else. If that doesn’t work, try something else. Keep searching. Connections are really, really important, so surround yourself with encouraging people. Everyone needs support, and that only comes from the people around you. Ask for help, use your connections, and no matter what happens, just keep going.

Itto: Thank you, Hasan. I couldn’t agree more.

Hasan: Thank you.  

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