At the recent assistive technology conference in San Diego, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Limón Martirosyan caught up with Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi and Amal Al-Khamis. They’d flown in from Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE).
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. It’s more like Mr. and Mrs; it’s 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 Sharjah—who happens to be my brother-in-law—thought 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 didn’t know anyone, so it was difficult to fit in.
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 out.
Cooper: Have you been able to expand services since you’ve taken over?
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. It’s also a method for teaching a second language to anyone. It depends on body movement, musical rhythm and language games.
We’ve 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 we’ve 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 it’s controversial. Many of them don’t want to use unified language; they want to use their own local sign language.
Martirosyan: That’s understandable.
Sheikha Jameela: But at some point, we all have to speak the same language.
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 don’t 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 don’t 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 it’s okay and others say it’s the wrong thing to do?
Sheikha Jameela: Some say, “We don’t want it for our kids,” but many parents would want it for their children if they were really young.
Cooper: It’s 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 don’t like the term “hearing-impaired.” They prefer “hard of hearing,” they don’t like the word “impaired” because there’s 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. We’re 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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: It’s a sliding scale.
Cooper: So if somebody comes in who’s financially capable they would have one cost, but if somebody comes in who can’t financially afford it—
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 it’s 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, we’re asking for 5,000 to 8,000 AED, the parents might say, “I don’t want to pay for this kid because he’s 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 shouldn’t be squandered.
Sheikha Jameela: It’s even harder for us, because our educational system and teachers have no information about working with kids with disabilities. They’re just starting to learn. That’s why they’re resisting the inclusion programs the Ministry of Education is trying to implement. It will take a few years, but at least we’ve gotten started.
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 wings.
Cooper: Mada, Qatar’s 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 people’s phone bills.
Sheikha Jameela: They certainly wouldn’t miss that.
Cooper: I think that’s how Mada grew so fast. They have 20 people on their staff and they’re 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: We’ll try that. We get some funding from phone companies, like they’ll buy a bus for us, but that’s 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 our center.
Every year he writes one or two books. He’s our patron. And he has great ideas. For instance, when we had a piece of land he advised us: “Don’t 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. We’re always thinking sustainability. We don’t want the day to come where we can’t pay our teachers because we’ve gone through that before; for two months we couldn’t pay salaries. But now we have our employees and budget. We’ve grown.
To raise money, every year we have two or three events where we get sponsors; then there’s 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 you’re developing manpower?
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.
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. We’ve 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 point.
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 you’ve 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.
We have a connection with a professor from a women’s college in Korea. She specializes in music therapy. Whenever she comes here, she volunteers with us.
She just trained our staff and teachers and Korea University signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Sharjah to create a music therapy program.
We need a program like that. Currently we have programs for medical students and physical therapy students. They all get trained at our center. We make our staff available to the school of medicine, to the parents and to students attending the university. We have some issues with doctors—
Martirosyan: We do, too.
Sheikha Jameela: The way they talk to parents to tell them the news that their child has a disability could stand improvement.
Cooper: There are schools here that have entire programs designed to teach doctors how to better communicate with patients with disabilities, because they’ve come from a culture mindset. It’s interesting that we have the same issues.
Sheikha Jameela: Also with dentists.
Cooper: Have you heard about Operation Smile? Dentists and surgeons go to different places around the world to do free cleft palate surgery.
Sheikha Jameela: Yes, I have. But, it’s difficult for the parents of these children. Their child may be sick and in need of treatment; the child may be hyperactive or spastic and have to go under anesthesia first.
Cooper: Amal, when did you start volunteering?
Amal Al-Khamis: They started giving me small tasks, like helping kids or getting kids to the dining room. And then I started volunteering in the camp.
Sheikha Jameela: We have Girl Scouts.
Al-Khamis: Our Girl Scout troop has members with disabilities. I also started participating in the organizing committee.
Sheikha Jameela: Now she does all of our organizing.
Cooper: Sheikha Jameela, did you ever think you’d be so involved in this when you were at Chico State?
Sheikha Jameela: (laughs) I had no idea.
Articles in the Andy Madadian Issue; Senator Harkin — The Deaf President Movement; Ashley Fiolek — From Pigging Out to Nutrition Classes; Humor — Part II of the “Greek Geek” Adventure; Candida — The Hands She Was Dealt; Derek Paravicini — He’s 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; Sharjah’s — Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi; Accountability — Employing People with Disabilities; ANDY — Music + Charity = Millions of Fans; QJMC — Team Quincy Jones Spreading Music’s Roots; Morgan’s Wonderland — An Accessible Fun-der-land; DRLC — The Blame Game in Gun Control ; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…