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When the heart sees blind without borders

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One perk of my job is getting to meet some extraordinary people — people with gumption, people with remarkable life force, people who are optimistic in the face of insurmountable odds, people who believe that life is a celebration despite the setbacks and pain. Twenty-three-year-old Ahmad Al Bahar, a senior student of Mass Media at the Gulf University of Science and Technology is one such remarkable young man. Blind from birth, Ahmad has taken his disability in his stride and drawn on his inner strength to find a meaningful purpose to his life. Ahmad wears his sightlessness like a badge of honour that was apportioned by destiny. He refuses to cow down, leads a full life, pushes himself to excel in academics and participates in activities both in and outside Kuwait. A meritorious student at GUST, Ahmad Al Bahar shows that there is nothing the human spirit cannot surmount if one has the resolve and resilience.

Ahmad Al Bahar is so good at what he does that he got selected by GUST for an international student exchange program where he performed very well. According to Dr Siddiqa Hussein, Counselor Student Success Center, GUST, “Ahmad Al Bahar is a very committed and dedicated student. Besides his physical limitations, he is a self-challenging boy who doesn’t believe in giving up. His self-confidence, persistence and close focus on his goals always led him to success. In fact, he is an inspiration to all special needs students: ‘Believe in what you are doing, and you are sure to get it.’”

Ahmad Al Bahar could have had a ‘normal’ life if it wasn’t for the negligence of the hospital staff where he was born. “Since I was born premature they put me in the incubator. The amount of oxygen used on me was more than the required amount. As a result, I became completely blind,” he says in a matter of fact way. “My family found it hard to cope with my disability in the beginning because they didn’t have any experience of raising a blind child. For example, My mom had to figure out different ways to teach me how to walk on my own and not bump into things,” he shares when speaking of his family coming to terms with his disability. But that did not stop little Ahmad from enjoying his childhood. At a very young age, he had learned to look at life with equanimity. “My childhood was interesting, although, I didn’t do much apart from studying and participating in school activities,” he smiles. We were having coffee and talking about life in general. Ahmad was recently back from an international conference in Qatar, which he had enjoyed thoroughly.

Ahmad’s zest for life is infectious. He writes poetry and plays the piano. “I discovered my talent for playing music as a child, and I started learning music. Later, I learned to use the computer on my own when I was 12, and that changed my life completely. Learning to use the computer helped me improve my English as well as know more about my disability and make friends outside of Kuwait.” When asked if he ever felt overwhelmed or depressed, he answered, “Not at all, I was curious about my disability and was finding ways to make my life much better.” He did not allow his impairment to become his weakness; rather he used it to his advantage. “My disability makes me feel empowered. It challenges me to continue in life and achieve my goals. To be honest, I’m glad to be blind. My disability helped me see the world differently. It is one of the factors that lead me to where I’m now.”

Ahmad’s brilliant performance at University won him a much-coveted place in the student exchange programme at the University of Missouri — St Louis. “It was one of the best experiences I ever had in my life, and I consider it my first step towards independence,” says the bright young man. “I achieved one of my goals which is learning how to use the white cane thanks to the International Liaison Specialist at UMSL. I went hiking for the first time in my life as well as ziplining, and it was wonderful! Moreover, I visited two radio stations which were NPR and Mind’s eye radio which helped me know more about my major. I’d like to thank GUST and UMSL especially the International Studies and Programs office for making that possible.”

It is to his credit that Ahmad Al Bahar not only pursued his education but excelled at it. It couldn’t have been easy for him to maintain a GPA of 4, but Ahmad persisted, and he was encouraged by support from his family. “Again, I owe my performance in academics to my disability and my family. Without my mom and her doing her best to push me forward as well as the rest of my family and friends, I would not excel at my studies. Also, you can add self-persistence to that.” Ahmad pushed himself to do well at school and college. He tried to find out ways to work around his disability. It is hard work, but he does it. “I try to figure out different ways to study. For example, let us say that I read something I don’t understand, I try to search it out on Google or listen to videos about it on YouTube. Also, I try to find different programs/apps that will help my studies.”

But then came a huge shift in Ahmad’s life. Having spent his schooling years at a special needs school, for the first time Ahmad felt himself at a disadvantage when he entered university. Thrust into a world where he had to interact, compete and perform with normal children, he stumbled but did not fall. It took him some time, but he learned to hold his own. “To be honest, when I first entered university, I found it a bit hard to integrate with the crowd. Later on, as I joined clubs and participated in different events, I found it much easier.” Ahmad did succeed in adjusting to university life, but there is no denying that there are drawbacks in the current system of education for special needs children, that needs to be addressed. For instance, Ahmad says it is essential that children with special needs are placed in schools for normal children as it will help these children acquire skills needed to survive in the real world. “Imagine you are studying in a school meant for blind students for 12 years of your life, and then suddenly you get shoved in this new environment that you are not used to. That’s why I think that schools should have an inclusive system in which that they should include students with disabilities with normal students, that way students will learn how to interact with disabled students and disabled students will learn how to cope in the society.” When asked how he coped with a classroom situation, Ahmad answers, “I believe that GUST is the best university when it comes to assisting people with disabilities. They make sure that you have a note taker in class and the doctors are very helpful and understanding. Also, when it comes to reading class material such as books, if the book isn’t available in a soft copy format, it can be scanned as a text for a blind student to read it.”

Ahmad also shared his dissatisfaction about the lack of special tools and skills that could have perhaps accelerated his personal and social growth. “Unfortunately, Kuwait is not up to date when it comes to devices that help a blind person depend on her/himself in their daily life. We do not have enough expos, fairs, and workshops that introduce a blind person to these devices and teaches them how to use them. Furthermore, we don’t have a store that sells these devices. You can either get them from the internet or people that specialize in obtaining these devices.” Life skill programs that train people with disabilities to live a decent life are also missing. “There is Training Gate International, a facility that teaches people ways to interact with people with disabilities; however, there isn’t any facility that teaches blind people how to be self-dependent. I’m trying to change that though. With the help of Training Gate International, we are trying to host the first workshop that will teach blind people how to use the white cane as well as teach them how to depend on themselves.” Ahmad Al Bahar plans to take his activism further. Apart from pursuing his PhD in the future, Ahmad also wants to work at providing a better quality of life to blind people. “I want Kuwait to be one of the leading hubs in the world when it comes to including people with disabilities in society and training them to live a normal life. Moreover, I want to continue composing music, and hopefully, I will be able to change the world with my music.”

By Chaitali B. Roy

Special to the Arab Times