First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim’s unveiling of a braille code in Dhivehi earlier this month was hailed as a milestone in the efforts to improve literacy among blind Maldivians. Advocates for the disabled are now urging the government to make braille accessible by introducing the code in schools, printing books in braille, and training teachers to teach braille.
Qari Ahmed Rasheed, the creator of the code, told The Maldives Independent that he had been inspired by a blind professor who taught him Arabic at the Islamic College in Malé.
“I hope this code becomes a gateway to higher education for blind children, so that they can reach their full potential. In the future, there will be books written in Dhivehi braille in libraries. Visually impaired children can read, write, make poems and publish books.”
The braille code is “an important first step,” he said.
“The biggest challenge ahead is that there is no way to write in braille. A braille printer is important to produce reading material.”
Mohamed Mazin, the president of the Blind Association, said a survey in 2012 found that more than 2,000 people are visually impaired in the Maldives. A majority are illiterate and only some 20 are employed, he said. Of the total figure, some 500 are of school age, but none are going to school now.
“Visually impaired people are among the most isolated, fragmented and neglected group of people in society. The introduction of a braille code alone will not empower the visually impaired. To fully and effectively use and teach braille, we need teachers, machines and printers.”
He also expressed concern that the Blind Association was not informed when the first lady unveiled the code.
“We worked with Rasheed in creating Dhivehi braille, but we were a bit concerned that it was introduced without our knowledge. In such matters, the Blind Association must be consulted with and kept in the loop.”
Jeehan Mahmoud, a former human rights commissioner who was involved in documenting challenges faced by disabled Maldivians, noted that even English braille is not taught in Maldivian schools.
“In many ways, English braille is more useful, and braille in both languages can be an empowerment tool that can be used in daily life, in the education system, in the banking system, in the court system and even in obtaining ID cards. But does the government have an action plan to mainstream its use?” she asked.
There are only three braille teachers in the country, Jeehan said, but it is not taught in schools. She added: “This must amount to more than mere lip service. It must come with a government action plan.”
Mazin said his association is planning to collaborate with foreign experts to conduct English braille trainings next year.
“Ideally, this is an activity the government needs to undertake, not the civil society. The government needs to take initiative in integrating braille in Maldives education system,” he said.
State Minister for Education Ahmed Shafeeu said the government is working with Rasheed to roll out a plan to integrate Dhivehi braille in the education system.
“Introduction of Dhivehi braille certainly opens up doors to further incorporate disabled children in the education system. But before it can be done teachers must be taught to become accustomed to the system and books need to be printed. Ahmed Rasheed has presented us with a proposal and we will work with him on developing it further,” he said.
As the majority of visually impaired people in Maldives are above 18 years of age and only a handful live in the atolls, Shafeeu said the government’s policy is to bring blind students in the atolls to the capital.
“Because in such cases one-on-one teaching methods are preferable and it would not be feasible to provide trained teachers to the atolls with such small number of students,” he said.
The Kalaafaanu School in Malé specialises in teaching visually impaired children, he said. “We have one foreign teacher who teaches braille, a braille printer and the appropriate resources. There are currently three students studying in Kalaafaanu School,” he said.
But a spokesperson from Kalaafaanu School said the programme is no longer functioning.
Mazin said the school had taught three visually impaired students for two years, but all had dropped out.
“It is deeply concerning that only three students were studying there considering the fact that this is the capital city, where almost half the population of Maldives resides,” he said.
“It shows that no appropriate surveys were done to find the number of children who needed such education and how people were aware of the programme.
“Parents of the students in Kalaafaan have contacted me regarding the lack of resources and low quality of education. As I understand one of them transferred to US and others have stopped going to school. To my knowledge the program is not currently functioning.”