Introduction

Ahmed is opening up the closed community of the blind to the society at large and making society recognize their potential. Ahmed is empowering and integrating the blind in Egypt by giving them a voice and a window for participation and employment through the media.

A journalist himself and a firm believer in the power of the media, Ahmed has decided to use existing media channels and create new media vehicles to break through the confinement of the blind community to help them communicate with the wider society and to make the society recognize blind citizens’ potential.

 

The blind in Egypt have no access to information, knowledge, services or employment and are isolated away from the community and perceived as weak dependent citizens. Knowing that, contrary to popular belief, the blind are powerful, persistent and resourceful individuals, Ahmed decided to help build an independent educated, cultured young generation of leaders in the blind community that would be more empowered to actively participate in the society than previously excluded generations and would mobilize their fellow citizens.

 

Ahmed’s strategy revolves around three axes all based on the use of media channels.  Using existing mainstream media channels such as journalism, television and radio and new ones, a magazine and an online radio, Ahmed helps the blind communicate with the wider society and among each other.

 

Ahmed’s campaign for empowering and including the blind is based on the premise that blind citizens are able citizens holding a lot of untapped potential. His approach contrasts the existing charity oriented culture which focuses on disability needs and rights while neglecting the power of people with disabilities and the way they challenge their disabilities to participate in the society on equal footing with other citizens.

 

Ahmed chose Media as his tool as a firm believer in the power of Media, he started with publishing a magazine “from the blind and for the blind” and by showcasing success stories from the blind community on television and in the radio, presented by blind presenters. Ahmed is currently working on opening up new Media channels starting with an online radio for the blind.

 

During his media campaigns Ahmed has also succeeded in generating employment opportunities for the blind in the field of Journalism and Media. He has also succeeded in mobilizing the blind’s participation as active citizens in the community and is building a network to link them with Citizen Sector Organizations in Egypt which could benefit from their contribution.

Marginalization of minorities still remains a characteristic of societies all over the world, with the Egyptian community not being an exception. One of the largest marginalized groups is the special needs segment of the population requiring special attention and greater investment. In this group, the blind seem to be the most isolated since they need trainers, technology and special material for inclusion. According to statistics of the World Health Organization, 45 million people are blind worldwide, and another 314 million have impaired vision, while one child goes blind every minute, an adult every 5 seconds. It is also highlighted that by the year 2020 there will be about 76 million blind children. An estimated 80% of global blindness is in fact treatable and/or preventable, but 90% of the blind live in the poorest areas of the developing world with limited access to curative care and attention.

 

In Egypt, more than 2 million people are living with visual imparity. The blind are estimated to make up 10% of the disabled community and represent the second highest form of disability in Egypt. Nevertheless, official authorities refuse to recognize the problem and tend to under-report numbers, thereby leading to exclusion. It is worth noting that the blind’s Labor force participation rate (LFPR) is less than half of the LFPR of citizens not suffering disabilities.

 

The blind can be viewed as a microcosm of excluded groups. All those in Egyptian society viewed as “other” are stigmatized – hidden, unemployed, isolated and alienated. Ahmed, because of his own experience and skill, decided to begin here.

 

Surprisingly, there is not a disability movement in Egypt. Most approaches on disability are imported from abroad and implemented by international organizations. While a number of initiatives have catered the blind’s medical needs, only a few of those have focused on their economic, social or cultural advancement, and none have adopted a comprehensive development strategy to develop them in those three aspects.

 

Among the initiatives working on developing opportunities for the blind is the Taha Hussein Library for the visually impaired, which is an offshoot of the Alexandria Library. This library seeks to integrate the blind through providing them access to books, tools of information technology, and other instruments through technology specifically designed to address the needs of the blind, partially blind, or the deaf and blind. By providing these opportunities, the library is attempting to give the blind a channel through which they can access the materials that all other members of society can access.

 

An IBM initiative seeks to establish opportunities for the visually impaired in which they would graduate from authorized trainings in the fields of information technology and computers. The company also provides the disadvantaged population with other IT solutions which provide them with access to computes by depending on programs using speech. Another program run by the Dar Al Nour Organization in Assiut is concerned with raising the blind’s internet literacy.

 

Moreover, a number of volunteer-based organizations embrace miscellaneous activities to aid the blind, including vocational training, recording audio books for the blind, and acquainting the blind with computers. These include charity organizations working under the umbrellas churches and mosques, Resala NGO and Friends of the Blind.

 

As for organizations concerned with the blind’s informational and cultural needs, these are catered to by few publications printed in Braille. Al Watani newspaper, a newspaper targeting Orthodox Christians in Egypt, introduced in 2005 a supplement entitled “Al-Watani Braille” which provides excerpts of the news printed in Braille. Next to this, a group of journalism students at Cairo University have printed a one-off Braille supplement to an on-campus magazine as part of their graduation project, under the title “Bokra Braille” (Arabic for Tomorrow Braille). In this publication, students shed light on success stories from the blind community, and raised awareness on the blind’s needs and rights. Another publication concerned with citizens with special needs is “Shumu’ Mesreya” (Arabic for Egyptian Candles), which targets the wider society providing information about disabilities and the rights and needs of disabled individuals, and is produced by an editorial team suffering from different disabilities themselves.

 

Although some media is concerned with the blind and people with disability in general, most target the blind or other groups as simple receptors of information which do not take part of the decision-making process of what they want to read other sources of  information they have not compatible with their needs.

Ahmed was inspired to start his campaign for the blind’s inclusion upon meeting Sameh, a blind man who works as a Braille editor in a Braille printing house in the winter of 2007. Through him he became aware of the exclusion that blind people suffer as a consequence of limited access to news and updated information, and the dependency they feel as they rely on others to access the most basic daily news. Coming closer in contact with the blind community made Ahmed realize how much untapped potential this community held with its members’ determination and strong will, defying their physical impairment to find jobs and serve the community while commuting in a city that is unequipped to facilitate the movement of people with disabilities. Ahmed then recognized that it is the wider community that is at loss when it turns its back on these strong individuals and not vice versa. His realization of the locked potentials that the blind community holds and the limitations they are subjected to made him decide to embark on a mission to end their exclusion.

 

Being a journalist himself and a believer in the power of knowledge, Ahmed decided to use media and journalism in his quest to empower and include the blind. For Ahmed, media opens a window for the blind’s access to information about the surrounding community, topics of general interest, social causes and jobs and opportunities. It also provides a podium where blind citizens’ can relay their messages to the surrounding society. Most notably, media creates a platform where blind Egyptians can interact, exchange information and advice, inspiring each other, and organize themselves into task forces.

 

His strategy to endow the Blind with skills and ultimately integrate them in society revolves around three axes: empowerment, integration and organizing the blind community. Ahmed empowers the blind by providing employment opportunities, boosting the blind’s self confidence, and enhancing their skills. Also, he integrates the blind into the wider society through campaigns changing the society’s perception of the blind as helpless individuals. He organizes the blind community by giving them media channels whereby they can communicate and also to convey their voice to the wider community.

 

Ahmed started his mission by launching Enferad, the first magazine for the blind by the end of 2007, assisted by Sameh as a Braille editor and a team of 7 blind journalists whom he trained. The first issue was published by mid 2008, and the second and third issues followed, with 500 copies each, but reaching more than double that number as the magazines were distributed innovatively. As Braille printing is costly, Ahmed has devised a distribution scheme that ensures maximum outreach for the magazine without incurring significant costs through the distribution of the magazine to the libraries, centers, CSOs and universities catering for the blind in order to allow the maximum number of users to access to his magazine. Ahmed’s magazine, will soon be complemented with thematic special features, special editions for children and women, audio supplements on CDs and online and a Braille teaching supplement (thus catering to those who do not know Braille).

 

Ahmed chose to start with a magazine to capitalize on his expertise in journalism. He avoided launching a website as he did not want to exclude readers who do not have access to a computer and internet, and was also aware that a number of existing initiatives worked through this channel were not meeting the needs of the Blind population. Ahmed avoided launching a program on traditional radio stations, as his blind friends complained that they had to endure hours of programs and advertising that do not target them before providing them with the information they need. Nevertheless, he is planning to launch an online radio for the blind which would also be accessible to the wider community.

 

Ahmed has initiated his campaign to integrate blind citizens into mainstream media by the end of 2008, by conveying views, issues and success stories featured in the magazine -contributed by his blind editorial team or by readers- to distinguished newspapers and prime-time television programs. Ahmed’s efforts allow talented blind citizens to gain recognition in the community while inspiring others to walk their own path. Also, two of the journalists that Ahmed trained are now co-hosts of distinguished television programs.

 

From October 2007 until now, in less than two years, Ahmed has faced challenges and hurdles before publishing the magazine (the first tool of his strategy) but he was able to achieve a lot due to his entrepreneurial character. Ahmed has gone through the necessary procedures including obtaining a Braille license from London, a printing license in Egypt, as well as undertaking a feasibility study mapping demand for the magazine. He has also started contacting governmental organizations and business sector organizations to get support for the magazine under their social responsibility programs and has managed to get sponsorship for the first two issues and advertising funding for the second issue, by advertising audio-material to Enferad‘s readers. To prepare the magazine’s content Ahmed brought together and trained an editorial team to aid in data collection, editing, conducting interviews and script writing, culminating their efforts in a publication “from the blind and to the blind” and creating a core group of young blind journalists. By the second issue, the team had been trained to execute the editorial tasks on their own while Ahmed’s role became confined to mentorship, networking, fundraising, strategic planning, marketing and advocacy.

 

Through Enferad magazine a number of individuals have started feeling more integrated. Thanks to Ahmed’s efforts, the blind journalists with whom he has worked are now proactive citizens in their communities, conveying their community’s voice to the society using mainstream media and proving to everyone that their disability has not stood in the way for their advancement.

 

In the coming year, Ahmed will organize the blind community into task forces through the platform he established, as he and his team of journalists who are leaders within their communities will encourage readers to participate in 2 community projects co-organized with CSOs in the different neighborhoods. Such projects will serve the purpose of empowering the blind by proving to their community and the wider community that they are able and that they add value to their neighborhoods. It will also work on integrating the blind into the wider community as they will work side by side with their sighted neighbors. Ahmed has approached several CSOs already, among them the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), Al-Nour w Al-Amal association for blind girls association, and the Sawy Culture Wheel, a community center promoting social change.

 

Ahmed has already received a number of requests to launch editions of his magazine in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait while working with the blind community in those countries.

Ahmed’s early years were spent in Saudi Arabia where his father worked as a calligrapher in the first Saudi Arabic newspaper. Ahmed father was a leader among the Egyptian community in Saudi Arabia, his house was home for Egyptians starting out in Saudi Arabia, as they spent the initial weeks with him and his family until they got acquainted with the city.

 

Following his father’s example, Ahmed was a leader in university, and he showcased his drive to integrate others in the community when he set up introductory and orientation activities for new first year students to their new life. Ahmed chose to stay away from traditional students clubs which could be intimidating to younger students, by choosing informal activities for the students to participate in order to make a smooth transition from school to university. To date, Ahmed always feels pain when he sees an isolated person who cannot take part in the conversation, whether in university, at work or at a family dinner.

 

Ahmed El Maraghy’s talent as a journalist became apparent early in his school years, where he participated in school journalism and received several awards both in his school and among schools in Cairo. Ahmed studied journalism and sociology and was always involved in organizing activities and events for his class.

 

Entering the field of journalism later on, Ahmed joined Akhbar El-Yom a renowned Egyptian news paper, where he has introduced a special edition for children under the name “Sobian wa Banat” (Boys and Girls). This initiative gave him recognition and for his efforts he was awarded the Syndicate’s award for Journalism Design & Layout, being the youngest journalist to obtain the award up to date.

 

Upon meeting Sameh, a blind man who works as a Braille editor in a Braille printing, Ahmed was inspired to issue his magazine Enferad to provide a window and a voice for the blind. Ahmed now feels a great reward to see the blind come out of their previous alienation, isolation and mistrust.

 

Taking this brave step, Ahmed managed to move from a design and layout journalist to editor in chief who, orchestrating the design of a new unique magazine, managing the whole editing, publishing and fundraising process in addition to training the reporters and journalists.

 

To dedicate his time and efforts to the magazine, Ahmed got an unpaid leave from his job at the renowned Egyptian newspaper Akhbar El-Yom. Ahmed’s wife supported his decision, and like him, is glad he is part of a social change, even if it means he has to forego the benefits of a stable job. Ahmed continues to work on using media to light the blind’s world, and lives with his wife and two daughters.