It Takes a Community to Unlock a Person's Potential

In the picture: a male Life Skill Program participant learns to use a white cane at the University of Balamand while walking with a female guide.

In the picture: a male Life Skill Program participant learns to use a white cane at the University of Balamand while walking with a female guide.

“To be honest I can’t decide what I liked most about last week, because so far everything has been helpful and fun," says Rasha. "I also don’t know what I am looking forward to the most of the coming weeks because I think every training is so much fun.”

Rasha is an 18-year-old who been visually impaired since birth. She lives in Beirut, close to Rafic Hariri Stadium, with her family, which includes two other siblings who are visually-impaired and currently enrolled in ETI’s programs.

“I heard about this program from the principal of my previous school,” says Rasha. “I really enjoy being here. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from everyone since I came here last week. The program teaches me how to be more independent and more confident. Now that my brother, sister and I have joined ETI, I feel we can learn to be more independent at home and help each other out more than before.”

Opening Up

Becoming independent is essential for many of these young people to gain confidence and to lead more fulfilling lives. However, a challenge to full independence for many people with disabilities across the globe is that the environment in which they live is not fully accessible. Included in the many obstacles to full accessibility these countries face is an educational infrastructure that does not always offer opportunities to learn basic life skills. It’s not that these kids don’t have the potential to learn life skills—they most certainly do—it’s just that they haven’t yet been presented with the opportunity. That’s where ETI steps in.

“Here in Lebanon, a lot of parents don’t really know how to deal with the visual impairment of their kids,” says Faten Nassif, an Activities of Daily Living trainer. “At ETI, they are learning things in groups. In these groups, they have contact with other children. This makes them more socially engaged.”

And many of ETI’s participants have already become more engaged over the past two weeks. They have built trust with their trainers and teachers, and have come out of their shells.

In the picture: a female participant (right) laughs alongside a male participant (left).

In the picture: a female participant (right) laughs alongside a male participant (left).

“I witnessed a student who was really shy, and I noticed he was putting up a wall between the two of us,” says Faten. “It was like, ‘I don’t want to learn because I don’t know how.’ The first day he wouldn’t even talk, but day by day, until now, we’ve noticed that he’s started to talk to us. And I think in the next few weeks he will become more engaged with our activities and he will open up more.”

These stories are common during our programs, and they are what we expect. Everyone is nervous trying something new for the first time, but with encouragement, and confidence on the part of ETI’s volunteers and staff, our young participants gradually realize that they can try new things—and that they can succeed at them.

“Providing these educational experiences for kids to open up is the key to changing society’s view on disability,” says ETI Founder and CEO Sara Minkara. “Everyone is supportive and everyone believes in this kid—that’s what we’re trying to reinforce. When kids open up and become comfortable with who they are, they are able to explore their potential, and discover that they have so much more to offer to the world.”

How Do We “Deal” with People with Disabilities? Well, We Don’t—We Integrate Them

Of course parents and other community members who don’t have much experience interacting with people with disabilities would wonder how to “deal” with them. However, one of the narratives we are trying to change is approaching the subject of people with disabilities.

“When we say, ‘this group of people,’ and designate a group separately from everyone else, we continue to stigmatize, and to isolate people into groups,” says Sara.

By integrating the youth with visual impairment with sighted youth, and by offering the Parent Workshops, we also acknowledge a truth about changing the norm: that it takes everyone—including program participants, parents, family members, and volunteers—to make this happen.

Parent Workshops

As mentioned above, ETI holds monthly Parent Workshops, which are also meant to transform the mindset of parents in Lebanon about the potential of people with disabilities to contribute to society as a whole.

Parent Workshops seek to create a safe space for dialogue among parents of children with visual impairment and to promote discussions about the social and cultural challenges associated with being blind or having a blind family member. Volunteers are trained to facilitate dialogue among parents that focuses on the identification of possible misconceptions about blindness, to co-construct empowerment and integration strategies with parents to better support families and children with visual impairment during and after the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi, and to increase access and exposure to empowerment and integration resources for parents and their families.

Bringing the message of empowerment beyond the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi allows the it to grow beyond the youth participants in ETI’s programs. A child learning life skills for the first time cannot continue to develop his or her skills without the support of his or her family members, and this goal of continuous growth starts with the parents. In addition, parents of children without visual impairment partake in the Parent Workshop to bring the message of inclusion to their communities as well.

Transformation of Perspective from the Volunteers

“I think all of us have some deep wish to empower people in situations where they have not been as lucky as us,” says Tim Mauro, ETI’s Information Technology Manager who is currently volunteering with the Life Skill Program in Beirut. “Children born with visual impairment can face a difficult life without integration. This group in particular calls to me. The people in this group are exceptional, extremely dedicated, smart and kind-hearted. This has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life.”

In the picture: a Life Skill Program participant feels the tip of a white cane.

In the picture: a Life Skill Program participant feels the tip of a white cane.

During volunteer training, volunteers learn how to, among other interpersonal skills, conduct discussion sessions, ask the right questions, and handle sensitive moments. Topics covered that pertain specifically to the Life Skill Program include learning about eye diseases and visual impairment, running simulations with goggles, learning Orientation & Mobility (O&M), and using the cane. Many of these volunteers have never encountered such topics, and report that they have gained a perspective on inclusiveness by working with ETI.

“One thing I’ve learned through working with ETI is that people who have visual impairment have the potential to live like any other person,” says Nasser, ETI’s music trainer. “I’ve also learned that having visual impairment, it doesn’t make them any less of a person. I have a lot of respect for these children.”

It Takes a Community

ETI’s programs are essential in instilling the power of confidence in youth with visual impairment, but it takes all of us to make sure that this idea sticks. The youth practicing their newly-developed skills will not continue to improve if they are no longer enmeshed in an inclusive, encouraging environment. It is also important to reinforce the fact that the inclusion of people with disabilities benefit all of society—because when everyone can participate, everyone can contribute their own passion, talent, and ideas.

“In the future, I what to share everything I’ve learned with other people who have visual impairment as well,” says Rasha. We look forward to the day that she does.

In the picture: three Life Skill Program participants—a girl and two boys—sit at desks during an activity.

In the picture: three Life Skill Program participants—a girl and two boys—sit at desks during an activity.

What is the Life Skills Program?

In the picture: a child learns to use a white cane.

In the picture: a child learns to use a white cane.

According to the twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow, self-actualization—the ability of a person to reach his or her full potential—is at the top of a list of needs that all human beings share. When self-actualization, and the corresponding feelings of confidence and inclusion, is denied to certain people, society as a whole suffers, because not every person is able to contribute the ideas, knowledge, and skills that lead to progress.

In Lebanon and other countries, many kids with disabilities, including visually impaired youth, are marginalized due to stigma and are not included in the educational and social sectors. Nearly all visually impaired youth in Lebanon do not use white canes to get around, also because of the stigma associated with them, and many of them may not even leave their homes.

There are currently a lot of social barriers to full integration in Lebanon, as well as in many other parts of the world. Therefore, it is ETI’s goal to equip people with visual impairment with the tools to be fully independent, and this includes the Life Skill Program.

The Life Skills Program

“The life skill program is a two-week course that children with visual impairment attend,” says Erica Hogle, one of ETI’s life skill coordinators currently working on the ground in Lebanon. “During the program, they learn several skills. They have lessons in 3 different curricula, including orientation and mobility, activities of daily life (ADL), and social literacy.”

These lessons are split into groups based on age. The immediate goal is for students to learn certain skills for themselves so that after the Life Skill Program they can go on to participate in Camp Rafiqi. Here they will integrate with sighted peers, where they are able to do things on their own, and fully participate in activities.

“The Life Skill Program is long-term, but the goal is much grander than that,” says Erica. “The program is about teaching independence to participants, which includes them learning how to do things on their own. In doing so, they build confidence, self-worth, and fuller, more independent lives.”

In the picture: a child learns how to hold a white cane.

In the picture: a child learns how to hold a white cane.

What is Orientation & Mobility, and How is it Taught?

“The word orientation refers to knowing where you are,” adds Erica. “This could mean understanding where your body is in space, knowing how to get from point A to point B, and having the ability to update where you are along a route when traveling to a particular destination. It’s also understanding the layout of your environment. It is like a cognitive map.”

Similarly, mobility refers to movement. Since many kids with visual impairment in Lebanon are enabled from a young age due to the stigma, they internalize this idea and often come to depend on family members or guardians to move about. They do not realize that they have the power within themselves to travel around on their own. But, with proper instruction and practice, they master the skills of navigation and movement, and this is the key that evokes feelings of confidence and empowerment within them.

“A phrase we often use to describe O&M is it is about moving safely, efficiently, and independently,” says Erica.

The way people with visual impairment move and orient themselves in their surroundings is just a different way of interpreting the world—neither superior nor inferior to any other method. It is important to recognize that everyone on this planet—whether they have visual impairment, sightedness, or any other number of disabilities or perceived “differences”—leads their lives in different ways, and this includes the way in which they navigate their environments. ETI purposefully integrates children with visual impairment alongside sighted children to demonstrate this principle firsthand.

Learning Life Skills

Many of the skills that are taught in the Life Skill Program will typically take years to be mastered, so after the summer programs end, ETI continues to provide one-on-one life skill training to achieve this goal. But the first steps toward mastery are learning to use a white cane independently and to learn how to move around in the environment, which includes positions for the feet and arms—important to figure out where to go.

In the picture: a group of children learn how to place themselves within their environment.

In the picture: a group of children learn how to place themselves within their environment.

In addition to orientation and mobility, an example of an ADL lesson that is taught includes money management. In this lesson, students learn how to identify money, keep items organized in wallets, the general cost of basic items, and ways to be safe with money. Clothing selection is another lesson taught within ADL. This includes how to identify different kinds of clothes, how to keep clothes organized, and how to know the different types of clothing owned. Once these exercises become comfortable, participants then practice skills such as putting clothes on hangers and folding different articles of clothing.  ADL’s curriculum also includes meal preparation, with lessons such as cutting, peeling, food identification, pouring liquids into cups, and spreading hummus on bread. Of course, cleaning the area after a finishing a meal is discussed, and this includes wiping down the table and sweeping.

In the picture: two children wipe down a table.

In the picture: two children wipe down a table.

Since the Life Skill Program meets for only two weeks, it is important to always review the skills that students have learned, and to give them more opportunities to practice. Even if a student does fine the first time doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has mastered the skill or that he or she will be able to do it again in the future. In this way, practice is essential.

Social Literacy

The physical act of learning life skills is not the only component of the Life Skill Program. The social literacy component of our curriculum goes beyond learning skills that will be implemented later. The social literacy aspect of our program is based on discussion, which includes practicing conversation skills and learning how to participate in different kinds of games. There are also lessons which teach students how to talk about individual visual conditions, as well as different accommodations for people with low vision to make so that they can see things better. For example, if a person with visual impairment tries to eat something on a black table, making the plate white helps since those colors are in high contrast. Lastly, one of an essential skill practiced in the Life Skill Program is how and when to stand up for oneself. In these lessons, students learn how to vocalize what they need, but also when they don’t need help. Learning boundaries—and how to best assert them—is an essential tool for any independent person in the world, but even more so for people with disabilities, because they are often taught subconsciously that they are victims and should follow others’ leads.

“In general, the social component is huge,” says Erica. “Many of these children are often isolated, and giving them an opportunity to interact with other students can make a huge impact. In addition, being surrounded by teachers who have higher expectations on them than what they typically find in their day-to-day lives is powerful. With that in mind, sometimes the best takeaways for many of these students is that that they’re there to learn, and to interact with each other.”

This notion of integrating youth with visual impairment without question and expecting that they will rise to the occasion is a foundation of ETI’s philosophy and program design, and it allows the kids to succeed when they are integrated with sighted youth in Camp Rafiqi.

“A lot of the things that the teachers do are amazing, but there’s also all these little things that the teacher doesn’t even realize they’re doing that means a lot to the student,” says Erica. “They can be quite life-changing."

In the picture: a closeup of a child's and teacher's hands feeling the handle of the white cane.

In the picture: a closeup of a child's and teacher's hands feeling the handle of the white cane.

Empowering Lebanon's Youth

It all started with a camp.

In the spring of 2011, ETI’s Founder and CEO, Sara Minkara, was a math and economics major at Wellesley College, planning to apply to graduate school in one of those fields. Sara’s friend Maysa, also a Wellesley student of Lebanese descent, came up with the idea for the camp. Maysa came from an education background, whereas Sara’s passion aligned with disability rights and inclusion. “She wanted to do something  in Lebanon and I wanted to do something about blindness and inclusion. So we put our heads together and came up with the idea of a summer camp. We then applied for the Clinton Foundation grant and other Wellesley grants, which we got, and put on the camp,” says Sara.

Pretty simple, right? Just form an idea, implement it, and watch as it becomes a success. Well, not so much. A lot of planning and hard work by dedicated staff and volunteers goes into making ETI’s programs a reality. This summer, as we celebrate ETI’s sixth summer of programs for youth in Lebanon, we reflect on the reasons behind the design of our programs, as well as what it takes to empower our participants.

Sara Minkara (left) supervises a girl learning how to use a white cane.

Sara Minkara (left) supervises a girl learning how to use a white cane.

A Holistic Approach

“I never knew that it would be a successful project creating huge impact. So I knew then and there that I wanted to continue on that path. I put together a team and by my senior year in college I had registered ETI as a nonprofit. I never thought  that ETI would become my life—I was  planning on pursuing a PhD in Economics—but I realized that ETI is what ignites my passion and it is what is needed in this world. So I switched paths.”

Following Camp Rafiqi’s success its first summer, Sara and her team realized that, in order to continue, ETI needed to offer more programs beyond the camp. Since there is no such program in Lebanon besides ETI’s Life Skill Program that teaches basic life skills to youth with visual impairment, many of the kids with visual impairment who come to Camp Rafiqi have never been taught these essential skills. In order to better participate in all the activities Camp Rafiqi has to offer, the kids with visual impairment would need to learn some of these basic skills before arriving at the camp.

This is how the Life Skill Program came to be. The Life Skill Program is a two-part training that occurs before ETI’s summer camp and throughout the year. In this program, children with visual impairment learn orientation and mobility, independent life skills (such as choosing an outfit and preparing simple meals), and technology. The Life Skill program has been designed to build confidence in the children with visual impairment, so that they can go on to participate in Camp Rafiqi (and later on, the Social Project Program).

All of ETI’s programs take this holistic approach—planting the seed of confidence during one program, and then allowing it to continue growing throughout the next program, and then in the one after that. The cyclical nature of our programming is important because we want our kids to continuously learn and become more confident as time goes on, without interruptions or major setbacks. In other words, we want our participants with visual impairment to progress as the capable, constantly-learning young individuals that their peers are. Our expectations of what they are able to achieve are similar to those of any other kid, and we support them every step of the way as they grow and evolve. 

A supervisor leads a group of camp participants in an activity.

A supervisor leads a group of camp participants in an activity.

Why a Summer Camp?

Every summer, children across the world get excited about going to summer camp. There is so much to do at camp—make new friends, learn new activities, and just be a kid. For youth with visual impairment in developing countries, however, the option to go to summer camp—much like participating in other activities—does not exist. 

“We wanted to create an environment where kids with visual impairment would be integrated with sighted kids, and one that is typical for children, so that they could just play together and have fun—the way kids are supposed to,” says Sara. “Having both populations of kids come together revolutionizes their mindsets.  It shows the kids with visual impairment that they have a right to exist in society, and it shows the sighted kids that their peers with visual impairment aren’t so different from them.”

A girl displays her art project, which resembles a clock, while a boy in the left background looks on.

A girl displays her art project, which resembles a clock, while a boy in the left background looks on.

It is important for us to show the kids with visual impairment that they belong, just by having them come to camp. We do not patronize them. We do not pity them. They have a seat at the table just like the sighted kids. They’re given the opportunity to learn about music, art, and theater just like everyone else, and they get to play soccer with other young people. Having visual impairment does not mean that you can’t enjoy all the fun things childhood has to offer.

“Working for ETI’s summer programs in 2016 was a rewarding experience on so many levels,” says Ziad Azar, ETI’s Tripoli Program Manager. “I met positive and hardworking people from different backgrounds who shared the love of community service and doing good deeds for society as a whole. Taking part in the programs made me realize how needed and important integration and inclusion are in any society, and witnessing beautiful friendships between two participants who were complete strangers at the beginning of camp is a memory I will cherish forever.  Finally, participants with visual impairment taught me how beautiful life can be even with loss of sight.” 

Purposeful Integration

When people of different backgrounds and interests come together with a common goal, we learn, without even meaning to, that they are not so different than us. ETI does this by purposefully integrating blind and sighted youth, but we take it a step further by also integrating other supposed differences: Palestinian and Syrian refugees with Lebanese youth, as well as Muslim and Christian children integrated together.

“We want to clearly demonstrate to the kids that everyone has value and that inclusion is important,” says Sara. “Everyone has different abilities, and everyone has something beautiful to bring to the table. It’s a loss on society if we don’t integrate everyone. This camp allows the visually impaired kids to gain independence, and second, for every single kid to learn that they have abilities and potential to contribute.”

We’re confident that each kid in our programs will gain confidence this month, and we look forward to watching it blossom in every participant. Stay tuned with us as we explore the impact we are creating this summer through the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi, in this blog series, Empowering Lebanon’s Youth, and let us know in the comment section what you think.

A girl (left) and a boy (right) smile for the camera.

A girl (left) and a boy (right) smile for the camera.

I Can Do That, Too: Higher Education for People with Disabilities

In the picture: ETI's STEM Curriculum Coordinator Dr. Mona Minkara gives her commencement speech at Wellesley College.

In the picture: ETI's STEM Curriculum Coordinator Dr. Mona Minkara gives her commencement speech at Wellesley College.

Written by ETI Content Writer Hillary Dolinsky

Last month we talked explored why certain social norms—like dating, marriage, and sexuality—are not extended to people with disabilities. This month we’re taking a look at how society has different job and education expectations for people with disabilities than their non-disabled peers.

In today’s world higher education is a must, greatly increasing the chances of finding gainful employment. But to people with disabilities, a higher education can also be a strong pathway to independence, confidence, and empowerment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “people with a disability are less likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree than people with no disability.” In fact, 16.4% of people with a disability earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 34.6% of undergraduate students without a disability. If a college degree is so powerful, why don’t we encourage more students with disabilities to consider higher education?

Sara describes this stigma personally, sharing that, “sometimes people are surprised that I went to Harvard, especially when I travel. They think I must be talking about a Harvard other than THE Harvard. People don’t expect that someone young and disabled can graduate from an Ivy League school.” The general attitude of surprise when a person with a disability attends college is part of the problem—and until we raise the bar, we run the risk of discouraging students from reaching their potential.

Society also needs to recognize that college may be an option for students with learning disabilities, too. Some colleges have gone above and beyond their “Office of Disability Services” to create a curriculum, living environment, and social activities specific to the needs of students with learning disabilities. College Magazine explores the top ten schools that are striving to serve students with all disabilities.

We understand that college is not for everyone, and we certainly are not advocating for everyone to go to college. We also know that disabilities range from learning and social to physical, and that a person’s disability may make higher education out of reach. However, an assumption exists that college is not obtainable for a person with a disability, period. Limiting our expectations for students with disabilities impacts how they consider their futures, define their own sense of value, and explore their identities as a people with disabilities.