“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.