Chet Cooper: Tell me about the idea behind Mada.
Ahmed Habib: The idea was to establish an assistive technology resource center in Qatar that is dedicated to getting people with disabilities up to speed technologically. It stems from a commitment made by the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ICTQatar) to build an accessible digital ecosystem.
Mada means horizon in Arabic and it captures the center’s belief in the limitless potential to transform the lives of people with disabilities. Our resource center caters to the needs of all four major areas of disability: visual, hearing, learning and physical, as well as working with people to find out what their needs and abilities are. We address the ways people have been digitally excluded.
The importance of the role ICTQatar plays in our lives is compounded for people with disabilities who face barriers in the areas of education, employment and quality of life. We see information communication technology as a powerful tool to improve the overall experience of people with disabilities.
Cooper: Tell me more about the resource center.
Habib: It’s comprised of interactive workstations that contain a wide range of the latest assistive technologies. They’re specifically designed to improve access to the world of information and communication technology. People with disabilities who feel that they are being left out can come to the center and have their needs and aspirations assessed by a team of assistive technology specialists. This is the first step in the process of providing them with the skills and tools they require through individual and/or group training sessions.
Our resource center is also located within the building that houses ICTQatar—the country’s regulatory authority. It’s similar to the Federal Communications Commission in the US, but at the same time it’s the author of our country’s IT strategy. Our relationship with ICTQatar allows us to engage in projects related to infrastructure and to come up with ways to be more accessible to people with disabilities.
Cooper: How does that work?
Habib: Mada was established by ICTQatar as a public/private partnership bringing together the country’s two largest telecommunications operators, along with Microsoft and Qatar National Bank. These organizations give us a certain kind of positioning. For instance, Qatar National Bank operates a very large IT platform for the country and is the perfect partner to talk to about accessible ATMs and Internet banking.
If we want to engage in projects related to infrastructure, Qtel and Vodafone would be the ones to help us. They could offer accessible emergency services, make assistive technology available in stores and create discounts for people with disabilities. Naturally the leading IT company Microsoft can lend us expertise and experience in the area of accessibility.
Cooper: It sounds like your scope is quite broad. How do you approach it?
Habib: Our three main functions are assessment, training and outreach. People come to the center and are assessed by professionals. We find out their needs and their technological aspirations and then we recommend a set of solutions that might include a Braille display reader or a particular learning tool. After we recommend a solution, we complement it with one-on-one training. The idea isn’t that you pick up your technology and leave. We want to create a relationship. We want to make sure the technology is placed in a classroom or a work environment that helps the users. Then we go out and do followup assessments and ensure that our service is relevant and meaningful.
Cooper: Is it expensive for end users?
Habib: Our services are free. We offer one-on-one support, free e-accessibility services as well as free consultations to web developers and content managers to help them make their websites more accessible. Currently, we’re also working with manufacturers of assistive technology on developing Arabic language solutions. We realized when we started the center that unless there were a wide range of Arabic language solutions available, it would be difficult to bridge the digital divide between people with disabilities and the world of information communication technology.
At the same time we understood that the majority of technology manufacturers are relatively small companies and might be hesitant to develop products in a language and market in which they have limited experience. So we financially and logistically support these companies to produce Arabic language solutions and now we’re working with several developers from around the world in areas such as symbol based communication tools and text-to-speech applications.
Cooper: Language is a significant part of accessibility.
Habib: And it’s more than just which language is used. It’s the type of language and kind of words used that matter as well; language and culture are so closely linked. Awareness is important, too. We recognize that no matter how successful we are in giving out technology or helping people with it, our work is going to be less effective if perceptions and attitudes within policy making, education and employment don’t support what we’re doing.
Cooper: Are your ATMs accessible or is that still in the pipeline?
Habib: We are working closely with our partner Qatar National Bank and several other leading banks in the country to find ways to make banking accessible. This naturally includes ATMs and e-banking platform websites that can be used by people who rely on screen readers or keyboard only navigation. Different stakeholders are working on this, particularly in light of the fact that accessible ATMs are mentioned in the National e-Accessibility Policy that was launched by ICTQatar to ensure that critical components of the digital ecosystem are accessible to all.
Anirban Lahiri: We are able to act as an important information conduit for projects aimed at providing greater accessibility. With regard to ATMs, for example, we can provide expert consultancy on the way we implement international accessibility standards to be relevant and meaningful to our users. Our knowledge of the challenges people with disabilities face becomes very important to a bank that wants to offer accessible products.
Habib: For example with Microsoft, we’ve placed its technology in hospitals and medical facilities that deal with children and long term care patients. Now they can take advantage of Microsoft Xbox 360, Skype and other products to communicate with friends and relatives. It’s been a year since we launched an initiative with the country’s main telecom provider, Qtel, that offers substantial discounts to people with disabilities and places assistive technologies in stores and other places where people can access them easily.
Cooper: Do you feel you’re having an impact?
Habib: Although there is a lot of work that still needs to be done, we absolutely do feel that we are making an impact. At Mada, we see 400 or more people a year. Providing people with assistive technologies for free is important to us because we know that some of this equipment is expensive and having to purchase it can mean a financial burden on the user. We are also proud to be a vendor neutral organization, which enables us to give expert advice in an objective manner so people can make informed and contextualized decisions on how best to integrate technology into their lives.
We also actively hire people with disabilities in different positions at the center. When visitors come to Mada and see people with disabilities working in meaningful roles, they start to think about hiring them in their own organizations.
Cooper: I see a great deal of building going on; does Qatar have the equivalent of an Americans with Disabilities Act as yet?
Habib: Qatar is actively pursuing policies to ensure spaces are accessible to people with disabilities.
Lahiri: A number of international laws and best practices have been adopted in the area of accessibility over the last decade. In fact, the special rapporteur on disability for the United Nations was Qatari, Sheikha Hessa bint Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Thani, so accessibility is definitely high on the agenda. We know that our users lives don’t end at the walls of the center and as such we work with other organizations to look at ways in which they can make their spaces and services accessible. Although our mandate is getting people with disabilities connected, we want to contribute to the wider discussion about accessibility that is taking place in Qatar.
Cooper: How are you connected with the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs?
Habib: Hassan Ali Bin Ali, the chairman of Shafallah, was a member of our board of directors. We recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with their center to work together to increase the ability of our respective organizations to provide a more effective assistive technology service in Qatar. These include sharing resources, providing training and working on joint outreach and awareness initiatives.
Lahiri: When we see professional entities from various sectors, we let them know: “Yes, we can support you by providing assessment and expertise.” But whether it’s in hospitals or in schools, assistive technology needs to be used effectively. That is why working together with organizations such as Shafallah is so important. We need these partnerships and we need to learn from our experiences to deliver effective service.
Cooper: Did you go to school in the US?
Lahiri: I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University studying mostly at the Qatar campus, but I also spent a semester at the Pittsburgh campus.
Danielle Zurovick: Is the Carnegie Mellon campus in Qatar completely accessible?
Lahiri: Yes. The university makes a concerted effort to provide a space that’s accessible to people such as myself who have physical disabilities.
Habib: It’s important to note that Qatar University is the post-secondary academic institution in the country that absorbs the largest number of students with disabilities and they have a disability services center. We work closely with them to find ways that we can implement assistive technologies in an academic setting.
Zurovick: How many people work here in this office?
Habib: Approximately 25. We’re a very small team. The reason we’re punching above our weight is because of the relationships we’ve been able to establish with other organizations here in Qatar and around the world.
Cooper: Punching above your weight? I’ve never heard that expression before.
Habib: It’s a common saying to describe a person or an organization achieving beyond its perceived potential. We have put together a very talented team bringing together different skill sets. We’re building a lot of local capacity in the field of assistive technology, and our focus continues to be supporting people with disabilities.
Lahiri: From the beginning, we knew that we could not do everything by ourselves. In all practicality there had to be a knowledge transfer, where we would give support to others and learn from them at the same time. Now we’re focusing on building local capacities so there is a real pool of knowledge available to Qataris who want to work in the field of assistive technology.
Cooper: How are you funded?
Habib: Mada is funded through a portion of the licensing fees collected from the telecommunications operators in Qatar. Our corporate services are provided by ICTQatar, which gives us the ability to operate a universal loan provision fund. That helps us place needed technology in the hands of people with disabilities who may not have had access to them in the past.
Cooper: Does that mean the government?
Habib: Although Mada receives its funding from a mechanism set up by ICTQatar, we are not technically a government institution. We are a private entity with a public benefit.
Cooper: Where do your clients come from, and how do they find out about you?
Lahiri: Before our official launch in June 2010, we worked closely with people with disabilities and different disability service providers in the country as part of an Assistive Technology Working Group. The word about Mada began circulating before we even opened our doors, because the idea to establish the center emerged from a need to overcome the challenges that the disability community faced.
Word of mouth remains our most effective means of communication. We’ve also developed an active awareness campaign to include a seminar series, parents’ nights, social events, and even a dedicated campaign to target students across the country. We’re also very active on social media and have been working with various organizations worldwide to make them aware of the work we’re doing in Qatar.
Cooper: Did you ever think this project would take off so quickly? It sounds like you’ve really got your hands full.
Habib: We do, but at the same time we were prepared because we were cognizant of the need and knew what we would have to do.
Cooper: Your degrees are in what disciplines?
Lahiri: My academic background is in computer science.
Habib: My degree is in political science; I graduated from Toronto’s York University.
Cooper: And you speak Arabic?
Zurovick: Do you develop your tools or do you simply perform needs assessment and use tools that have already been developed?
Lahiri: The new trend in the software field is taking things that are highly configurable and customizable and adapting them to the needs of different individuals. Of course the users themselves cannot do this customization, and that’s where we come in. We have also recently started an R&D sector within the center. It encompasses two streams: (1) Arabization/ localization and (2) pursuing wider research initiatives around the world. For the sake of reliability and best practices, most of the technologies we use are commercially available. We work with industry and technology companies to help them develop and enhance products. We also utilize Creative Commons to ensure all our information resources are available for anyone to download and reuse.
Cooper: There’s still going to be a cost factor if you’re using open source.
Lahiri: Our R&D has just started so we’re in the early stages of scoping out the requirements. To date we have been able to complete a number of localization projects, which has been good for us because we were able to establish our credibility within the research community. We don’t do R&D alone. We give financial and logistical support to developers and manufacturers, working in close partnership with them. We scope out the needs, get user reviews and feedback. It’s also important to notice the fact that often the developers and manufacturers themselves have been proactive in making things happen. For example, we launched the first Arabic version of Clicker 5. It’s a very popular learning tool that relies on symbol based communication technology to enhance literacy and help with learning disabilities. Now it’s fully available in Arabic and free to all independent schools in Qatar. We’ve also launched an Arabic version of the FXC Software Series and ATbar.
Cooper: One of the things we’re looking at right now is how we can take the digital version of our magazine and convert it into Arabic.
Habib: We would love to help you with that. We’re keen to support more digital content published in Arabic, and we’re launching the first 100 accessible Arabic e-books on Bookshare.org, a collection of childrens and adults books which we hope to see grow rapidly in the future.
Cooper: Actually, the whole context is to launch it with an Arabic version for the Gulf States. We’ll see if different countries are open to providing content. We’re actually having a meeting with Saudi Arabia around this.
Lahiri: Very good. There’s an organization that I think would love to help you in terms of Arabic or English or Braille and other accessible formats that deliver information.
Articles in the Scott Baio Issue; Senator Harkin — Trying to Make it Work; Ashley Fiolek — Kickin’ up Dirt; Humor — Die Laughing; Geri Jewell — Pet Power; Eva Feldman, MD, PhD — ALS and Stem Cell Therapy; Beyond Silence — Deafness in India; Long Haul Paul — Q&A with a PA; Models of Diversity — Embrace it! ; Governor Markell — Blueprint to Employment; China — A Coach with Passion; EMPOWER — Global Inclusion; FREEJ — Grandmothers Rule; MIT — Leveraged Freedom Chair; Scott Baio — Happy Days; MADA — Global Assistive Technology; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…subscribe