JEDDAH: The Ebsar Foundation plans to set up factories to provide much-needed employment for people with visual disabilities in the Kingdom, according to the foundation's secretary-general Mohamed Tawfiq Ballo.
In an exclusive interview with Nadim Al-Hamid of Arab News, Mohamed Tawfiq Ballo gave details of this and other ambitious projects in the pipeline. He said that the organization is in the process of developing a feasibility study and action plan for the factory.
It is also seeking to develop partnerships with the private sector.
Minister of Labor Adel Fakeih supports the idea, which will fall under the ministry's Tawafoq program aimed at employing people with special needs, he added.
Ballo called on business people, corporate social responsibility officials in the private sector and government development funds to finance the project.
He said that the Ebsar Foundation provides numerous training courses for the visually impaired in the Kingdom and the Arab world. It has spent more that SR 30 billion over the last 9 years.
He highlighted the ambitious plan by the foundation to print copies of the Holy Qur'an in Braille.
A study was conducted to specify the total number of copies needed in the Kingdom. In 2012, the total number of beneficiaries was 1,643 visually impaired persons — 1,015 males and 628 females, 508 children aged 1 to 5 years, and 1,135 persons above the age of 6.
Below is the full text of the interview:
Can you provide details of the factory to be managed and operated by visually impaired persons?
The United States is a leading country in terms of rehabilitating and caring for persons with different disabilities, including persons with visually impairments. Most US organizations that provide services for the visually impaired have departments dedicated to employ these people. In addition, there are 80 industrial programs associated with the National Industrial Association for the Blind. We decided to follow their example and apply their experience here in the Kingdom by setting up factories to employ the visually impaired.
For this reason, I visited a factory in New York on Oct. 31, 2011. The CEO there took me on a tour to familiarize me with the work and operations. On my return, I prepared a proposal to establish a similar factory in partnership with the private sector. I presented it to the Minister of Labor Adel Fakeih and asked him to support the proposal under the Tawafoq program that aims to find employment for people with special needs. The minister approved the proposal and the foundation is currently preparing a feasibility study and an action plan.
In this regard, I appeal to donors, corporate social responsibility officials and government development funds to assist in funding the project. The plan is to target visually impaired students studying on scholarships, students specializing in disciplines needed by the factory, and other graduates of local universities and institutes.
What new programs, training and rehabilitation courses are planned for the visually impaired in future?
We have launched a new program to train and employ Saudis who are visually impaired and enrolled in the society — males and females between the ages of 18 and 60 years — at a number of firms and factories in the private sector starting from May 1, 2013, for 18 months, with 64 hours of training a month.
The program includes a course on the use of computers, safe mobility and orientation, reading and writing in Braille, and developing vocational skills. We expect that there will be 250 beneficiaries of the program by the end of 2013, and 500 by 2015.
What are the most important obstacles facing the foundation and how can you overcome them?
The most important of all is the shortage of financial resources to pay for the costs of our activities. We also have a shortage of specialized staff and limited academic programs in the field of visual impairment at local universities. This comes at time when there are many more people needing help.
Our work is also being delayed by some outdated regulations and laws. There is also a lack of awareness by workers and the community regarding the objectives of the foundation, the importance of rehabilitating persons with disabilities, and its developmental and social effects.
To overcome all these obstacles, it is very important that the private sector be aware of the importance of supporting our foundation.
In addition, it is important to organize courses for fresh graduates and staff, and to urge them to work in the field. We should also promote and enhance awareness activities, training courses and social programs for members, their families, and the staff working with them. There is a need to communicate and provide suggestions to the Ministry of Social Affairs to update and develop the applicable regulations and laws.
How can people with visual disabilities get access to the foundation's services?
The foundation is open to persons of all ages. It provides them with the services at nominal rates. We are not making a profit from our services. If people cannot pay, the social worker at the foundation conducts an assessment, then specifies the percentage of assistance which might range between 25 and 100 percent.
Can you elaborate on the initiative with the King Fahd Complex to print the Holy Qur'an in Braille?
The project to distribute the Holy Qur'an in Braille was launched with the cooperation of the printing press of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to print copies in Braille for distribution to beneficiaries locally and abroad.
This will be done in stages because one copy of the Holy Qur'an consists of six big volumes. One hundred copies have so far been distributed to members who can read Braille, and to other charity and Holy Qur'an memorization organizations. Also, 20 copies were sent to the Arab Blind Organization in Jerusalem at the request of the President of the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, Prince Raad bin Zaid, who asked for a total of 150 copies to be eventually sent there.
A study was conducted to determine the total number of copies needed in the Kingdom through meetings with the aforementioned press and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, to print copies in Riyadh. The study concluded that 26,000 copies are currently needed in the Kingdom. The capacity of the printing presses is 1,500 copies at each stage. There will be a total of 6 to 8 stages every year.
We are also conducting a study on the needs of visually impaired people for 9 years upward. We want to determine exactly how many people can read Braille. The first results showed that 157 can read Braille out of 513 respondents, of which 76 do not have copies of the Holy Qur'an in Braille. A total of 103 persons wish that they could own one.
In this regard, I personally call on businessmen and others to support this program, and coordinate with others in the field to distribute the copies. This is because many of these disabled persons are not enrolled at any educational institutions. I would like to emphasize that it is important to fight illiteracy among people with visual disabilities.
It is worth mentioning that the government bore the printing expenses, shipping costs from Riyadh to Jeddah, and money needed for the studies conducted.
What measures the foundation is taking to prevent blindness in the community?
In cooperation with the National Committee to Fight Blindness, we prepared the statute of the foundation, and the constitution of the executive management to accomplish the initiative Vision 2020.
The foundation concluded agreements of cooperation with a number of private eye hospitals in the private sector in Jeddah, to bear 25 to 50 percent of the cost of treatment for patients who cannot afford to pay, with the foundation bearing the rest, as well as administering drugs and other kind of support.
In 2012, the total numbers of beneficiaries of the program was 1,257. As for eye diseases, the foundation provides clinical services that include the patient's history of illness, optometry, visual aids, and other types of support. In addition, the foundation provided diagnostic services and training for 346 persons on the use of visual aids, and trained specialists in the field of weak vision, including 74 ophthalmologists and optics technicians.
It is worth mentioning that a case study conducted by the foundation entitled Learning Life Anew, was chosen as a model for studies in the eastern Mediterranean region for the care of visually impaired by the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness, an agency of the World Health Organization. It was published on the Vision 2020 website of the agency on International Day of Sight 2011, with 13 other studies presented by several other countries around the world.
Has the foundation been involved in sponsoring treatment for other types of diseases and visual disabilities?
The foundation receives many cases of people with eye diseases that lead to blindness or visual impairment and that cannot be treated surgically or corrected with visual aids.
Regarding the most common diseases, the foundation recently conducted a study of more than 700 cases at the foundation clinic for visual impairment and the results showed the following:
Retinal diseases 371 (49.6 percent); diabetic retinopathy 73 (9.8 percent); optic nerve atrophy 124 (16.6 percent); glaucoma 56 (7.5 percent); cataracts 40 (5.3 percent); albinism 20 (2.7 percent); corneal diseases 19 (2.5 percent); squint and amblyopia (lazy eye) 3 (0.4 percent); others 42 (5.6 percent). This comes to a total of 748.
Regarding incurable diseases, is there any kind of coordination and cooperation with the Ministry of Health and private sector hospitals?
Severe and incurable cases that the foundation cannot deal with are transferred to private hospitals due to the lack of financial resources. Other cases are transferred to Jeddah Eye Hospital.
How many visually impaired persons have benefited from the services of the foundation?
In 2012, the total number of members registered was 1,643 visually impaired persons, 1,015 males and 628 females, 508 children aged 1 to 5 years, and 1,135 persons above the age of 6.
How many Saudis have registered with visual impairments?
The percentage of Saudis benefiting from our foundation is 51 percent, of which 60 percent are males.
Do you have an exact total number of persons with visual impairments in the Kingdom? What is the percentage of Saudis?
Unfortunately, there are no recent statistics concerning the number of visually impaired persons in Saudi Arabia. But a survey prepared by the foundation based on reports by the United Nations Population Fund and World Health Organization estimated the number of visually impaired in 2005 around 274,891 persons, and growing at a percentage of 3.73 percent. The national committee to fight blindness estimated that the number in 2010 was one million persons with visual impairment, 150 of whom are blind.
A study conducted by the foundation that included 1,000 persons with visual impairments, found that Saudis constitute 51 percent of the respondents.
The foundation started an initiative, the first of its kind in the Arab world, to set up distance education for the blind. Can you shed some light on this subject?
After the accomplishment of the Strategic Action Program between Ebsar and Light House Consulting and Training in the field of visual impairment services in the Eastern Mediterranean (EMR) — which offered 5 training courses and scientific programs to 692 ophthalmologists and optics technicians — the foundation came up with the idea of remote e-learning (VRT). This was to find qualified persons in rehabilitation services and training programs on the Internet, who could offer a range of knowledge and skills to help train and rehabilitate people with visual impairments.