The Braille Monitor                                                                                         December, 2003

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Report on the Plight of the Blind of Iraq

by Dustin Langan

Dustin Langan is a young American working with the Office of Human Rights and Transitional Justice of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He is responsible for dealing with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country, like the organization assisting the blind. His title is deputy NGO coordinator. Though Mr. Langan readily admits that he knows little about blindness, those who have worked or talked with him say that his heart is in the right place, and his instincts are sound. He plans to do what he can to work with international blindness organizations to help the blind of Iraq. The following is a brief report that Mr. Langan prepared and that was read for him at a conference on the situation of the blind in the Middle East sponsored by the Kuwaiti government. Here is the text of the report:

National Association for Blind Care

The doorway into the office of the Iraqi organization assisting blind citizens.   An inspector from the Coalition Provisional Authority is standing beside a swamp cooler.
Pictured here is the doorway into the office of the Iraqi organization assisting blind citizens. An inspector from the Coalition Provisional Authority is standing beside a swamp cooler.

The National Association for Blind Care was first brought to our attention by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Rice, a U.S. Army officer working with the Baghdad city council. Although our focus is on providing support for NGOs that specialize in human rights, we were sufficiently impressed with this organization and the special needs of its beneficiaries to begin looking for ways to coordinate assistance.

Dr. Sadiq al-Maliki, the current chair of the association, professed that the only support they received from the previous government was an annual allocation of 90,000 ID [Iraqi Dinar] (approximately $50 U.S.). The Asian Union for the Blind donated a computer and white canes, but the cane supply was exhausted and the computer was stolen during the widespread looting in Baghdad after April 9, 2003. When asked about their current contacts and relationships in the international blind community, Dr. Sadiq mentioned only that he had not heard from the Asian Union of the Blind since before the war.

Our first visit to their operational headquarters took us to a residential neighborhood in Baghdad. The building was not inaccessible, but it could have been better placed on a major road. Our hosts informed us that they actually have two buildings, but that one of them had been overrun by squatters and some of the rooms in the remaining building were occupied as well. All that was left was three small rooms, none of which measured more than four by three meters. The walls were worn and slightly damaged, and electric wires sprouted from old sockets in clumps, as is typical of the complete looting that occurred in Baghdad. Our hosts expressed the worry that the walls were unstable and might collapse, but we were unable to make this assessment. It was very hot in the small rooms. All that remained of their original equipment and furnishings was a table, a few chairs, and an old and broken switchboard-operating machine, which had been used in their telephone-receptionist training program.

We returned a week later to interview some of the beneficiaries of the association's programs. We spoke to a violinist who once taught music classes at the association, a man who used to teach Braille literacy, and a few telephone receptionists who are currently employed at different hospitals. We also spoke to a man who completed a university degree with the help of the association's recorded audio cassette program.

Also present were a blind husband and wife. The woman was a teacher and spoke enough English to invite us to her home one day. Several persons present expressed their desire for an equal life and talked about the prejudices they experience in Iraq because of their blindness. Everyone was clearly hopeful that the association could resume its old programs and develop new ones to help blind people find work and enjoy a fuller life. One new idea that surfaced during discussion was training blind people to use an electric floor buffer for cleaning the marble and tile floors of many buildings in Baghdad.

Our most recent meeting was a trip to the General Hospital in Sadr, Baghdad, to see how one of the telephone receptionists performs at his job. The hospital was quite busy, probably in no small part because it was the only hospital to escape looting after the war. We found our interviewee in the receptionist's room, sitting next to two Lucent telephones, which he used to direct calls within the hospital. The general director of the hospital introduced himself to us and presented another blind employee, who worked as a receptionist.

We then went into the director's office to talk with him about his blind employees' performance. He stated that he valued these two individuals very much and that the person we had come to see had only begun working a month prior. Like all people, he said, some blind people are more capable than others, and he would not hesitate to hire another blind receptionist as long as that person proved to be effective at the job. We asked about other potential employment opportunities for blind people at a hospital or in general, and he recommended we consult with the international blind community.

After several interviews and visits, we find that the National Association for Blind Care is an important component of a society that offers precious little to its physically handicapped population. Despite minimal support from the state, the association has provided its beneficiaries with vocational skills, educational aids, cultural activities, and a sense of community. We recommend them for support and hope to help them build stronger relationships with the international blind community in the future.

Dustin Langan
Deputy NGO Coordinator
Office of Human Rights and Transitional Justice
Coalition Provisional Authority
Baghdad, Iraq

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