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Muna Alhammadi has come to Deakin University from the United Arab Emirates. Here in Australia she is working towards a PhD in special education, concentrating her work on the provision for visually-impaired students in higher education in the UAE. Her story (below) of how she has come this far is an inspirational one, as is her vision to take what she is learning here in Australia back to help new generations of visually-impaired students in the UAE.
My relationship with the world of the vision impaired goes back to the first stages of my life. I was born with Congenital Glaucoma as well as Cataracts on 18th of December 1976.
At this time, social, health, and educational services were still relatively new in the Emirates. The main common causes of disabilities were late diagnoses and lack of social awareness. My family is a good example of all these issues.
I am not the first or the last child in my family who has visual impairments. Two years before my birth my brother was born with the same eye disease that I have, but he lost all his sight after several unsuccessful operations. In addition, my youngest sister became blind when I was 10 after a bad eye injury.
Growing up in a family with three vision-impaired children out of 11 had a great impact on my life.
My father’s negative experience with my brother’s treatment led him to refuse to take any positive steps towards my treatment for the first six years of my childhood. Thus I lost most of my vision in my right eye and around 60% of my vision in my left eye.
However, my mother’s experience with my blind sister gave her the strength to fight to keep my sight in the latest stages of my childhood.
Fortunately both of my parents did not over protect me or my blind brother and sister and that gave us a normal environment in which to grow up and to express ourselves.
I started my educational life in 1981 when the first special centre for students with disabilities opened in Dubai. This centre included different types of disabilities. There was only one small department for blind students, and my blind brother and I with a few other students from different ages were the first students in this department.
Dubai Centre for Disabled was the first educational institution offering special education for the visually-impaired in the UAE. However the services in this centre were very limited.
For example, we did not receive any mobility and orientation training. Additionally, there was a lack of specialist teachers as well as Braille books and materials. When we were in primary and secondary education, my classmates and I used to print our school curriculums in Braille when we were on summer holidays.
At no stage of my studies while in the UAE did I have all the appropriate services for a partially sighted student. In the blind department, I began my educational life by reading Braille.
I did not learn how I could use my sight to read or to explore the world around me. Therefore, when I was in the seventh grade I enrolled in an adult night school to learn how to read and write.
For two years I attended both schools, the special centre in Dubai during the day and the mainstream night school.
I was so eager to learn how to read like the sighted. It was the most difficult time that I had ever had in all my educational life.
However, reading by using two different senses is one of the most important experiences in my practical life.
I do not feel that I’m sighted or that I am blind.
I do many things in my daily life by using my touch and hearing senses. On the other hand, I’m dependent on my sight to do many other things. It is not easy for the blind or the sighted to know the reality of my disability.
I finished my secondary school in 1994 and started my tertiary education in the UAE University. At this time, there were no special law emphasising the equal educational, working, and social rights for people with disabilities in the United Arab Emirates. I had no right to study in any colleges with scientific, technical, and educational courses. Therefore, I was forced to choose from the social and human sciences only.
I was so eager to study special education, but I was not accepted as a student in the Education College because some educators in this college thought, as someone who was visually-impaired, I would not be qualified to do the practical training.
I decided to study history and to be a bright student in this field.
My tertiary education journey was a difficult struggle. I did not receive any special services as a student with visual impairment from my university. I used to prepare my own materials by myself: by recopying some book chapters in large font, printing other materials in Braille, and taping some lectures and rewriting them later.
All these process cost me extra fees and time. Moreover, I had many difficulties in using the library and finding the books that I needed.
Also, the university building was not accessible for students who had disabilities and I did not obtain any training in how to move independently.
I graduated from the UAE University in 1999. My grade in my special field was excellent and my overall marks were very good.
I applied to be a lecturer at the same university but surprisingly, my application was refused as a result of my disability.
This incident was a strong shock for me. I felt I did not have any real rights in my society, that I could not achieve my life aims even if I worked with all my energy.
I swore to myself that I would finish my PhD an alternative way.
My dreams came true when I obtained an overseas scholarship to study for a Masters degree at Cairo University. Then, in 2008, I obtained another scholarship to study for my PhD in Australia.
My tough previous educational experience has given me the strength to get over the many obstacles I have faced and am still facing in my life generally, and in my study specifically.
As I work towards my PhD at Deakin I’m now dreaming of returning to the UAE with new knowledge to improve the special services for the students who have visual impairments.