JEDDAH: Saudi middle school student Talah F. Abualnaja has created a new writing system for the visually impaired.
Abualnaja’s curiosity about the struggles that the visually impaired face led her to take the initiative.
“It’s my first year in a school that takes part in a project that integrates students with visual impairments into public schools,” Abualnaja, 14, told Arab News.
“We have three students, and from daily interactions with them I was very curious and had a lot of questions. What letters they use, and how they communicate with others. I was amazed by the size of their large books. This motivated me to learn more about their world and search for answers.”
Abualnaja explained that the new writing system is different from braille as it requires smaller spacing when printing due to the use of diacritics being placed above the letters instead of writing it as a completely new and separate letter, as is the case with braille.
“This leads people with visual impairments to use huge books,” she said.
“The new writing system is also shown to be easier to learn and faster to memorize, and that’s because the new writing system follows a certain pattern that helps saves time and effort for people with visual impairments.”
Abualnaja said that the diacritical marks have different geometrical shapes from the letters’ shapes, and the geometrical shapes are written in small forms above the letters, in contrast to braille, and the marks are written as new letters.
Abualnaja explained the linguistic function and setup of her new writing system.
“The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters. Sets of nine-quadrant-grids are used to represent the different letters. They are divided into three grids, which are used recurrently with the only difference being the absence or presence of one or two dots within the shapes. The letters are divided into three groups, and the nine basic shapes are used in all three, with different uses of dots each time,” she said.
The young student worked on her project for a couple of years and took action when she saw the struggles her classmates with visual impairments face.
“The idea of the shapes that represent the letters came more than two years ago; I just never thought of using it until I saw the challenges my colleagues face in not only school but their social lives as well.”
“I would love for the project to help more people all over the world,” she said.
Abualnaja has applied for a patent and is waiting to receive it. She said that she has plans to publish her work.
“Then, I’ll work on publishing this writing system to spread it and help people with visual impairments. I definitely want to apply the structure of the writing system to more languages that may or may not include diacritics to help it expand.”
Abualnaja said that in the past year she had participated in many maths and chemistry competitions.
“I’ve won a few, but most importantly I learned from all of them and they showed me many opportunities and gave me the courage to learn more things.”
Abualnaja’s project led her to win third place at the Intel ISEF 2018 in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh in May.
“Just participating in Intel ISEF had a huge impact in my life; the idea of people coming from all over the world to help spread and share knowledge is absolutely incredible. Everyone there just came no matter how many hours the flight took, to learn and teach each other.
“I can’t begin to explain how winning at ISEF opened opportunities and helped me to meet and talk to inspiring people; it aims to help young minds discover, learn and think beyond.”
Abualnaja said that the experience was more important than the award. “Someone I met there told me that the awards we get from the competition are not going to last forever, but the experience we had and the things we learn will.”