A Blind Architect Who Sees Buildings Philosophically
Mina Michel Samaan, an architecture professor at Mansoura University, in Egypt, asks his students to make their drawings in his presence. Following the movement of their hands with his hands, Samaan redraws their sketches in his mind and then gives them advice and guidance on how to develop their work.
Samaan’s style may seem strange and complex, but it succeeds for him because he is blind.
“I was hesitant about the way through which students could be advised,” he said. “I could not see their designs and I was afraid of their reaction. However, things are going well and they are asking me to give feedback and guidance constantly.”
Samaan is the only blind professor on the Faculty of Architecture at Mansoura, north of Cairo. Egypt’s new Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, issued this year, obliges all governmental and nongovernmental employers and all private employers who employ 20 workers or more to give five percent of their jobs available to people with disabilities. But employment at the university is still largely not open to people with disabilities, especially in the scientific disciplines.
“Samaan was not an ordinary student. He had a special critical thought,” said Ahmed Rashed, a former chairman of the architecture department at Mansoura University. “My lectures depended on interaction [with students] and connecting architecture with history,” said Rashed, who is now a professor of architecture at the British University in Egypt. “He was reformulating it from his point of view, which represented a clear contribution. So I was keen to choose him as a lecturer in his department because of his superiority. I did not care about some people’s considerations of the potential weakness of people with disabilities.”
For Samaan, who is 32, life has not always been easy. He needed self-confidence to realize his dream of becoming an architect, like his father, especially after discovering he had a rare genetic disease that led him to lose his vision. Physicians discovered Samaan’s disease when he was 10 years old, and found the same condition in his brother when he was 2 years old. Both of them suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that gradually degenerates the light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye. The majority of people with the disease lose their vision at an advanced age, unlike Samaan and his brother.
But Samaan, thanks to a supportive family and his own determination, was able to get the grade he needed in the high-school exit exam to join Mansoura University’s Faculty of Architecture. He was ranked first in his class for four years. He then received six short scholarships at universities in Dresden, Germany, and in Florida, in the United States. He completed a master’s thesis at Mansoura University on designing energy-efficient, environmentally friendly university buildings. “I was not completely blind at the time,” he said. “So I was able to use specialized software through grants I received. That helped me to develop buildings that utilize natural lighting and ensure thermal comfort.”
Later, Samaan received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to earn a Ph.D. at a university in Braunschweig, Germany, known as the TU Braunschweig. The scholarships are awarded to one student per year from 35 universities in the developing world that participate in the program. He finished his studies last year and returned to Mansoura University as a lecturer.
In Egypt, as is the case in most Arab countries, students with disabilities face many difficulties in accessing and completing higher education. (See a related commentary, “How Egypt Could Better Serve Students With Disabilities.”) Egypt’s higher-education policies allow the admission of blind students in five colleges only—arts, sciences, languages, law, and social service—provided that the students have obtained at least 50 percent of the total grades required to obtain the secondary-school certificate. These students are also subject to special review by a committee of three medical faculty members at the same university. (See a related article, “Options for Special-Needs Students Are Few at Egyptian Universities.”)
“I think I was lucky,” said Samaan, “I was able to pass the medical examination because I was still able to see a little at the time.”
“When I met him for the first time, he had just started studying at the university as a Ph.D. candidate,” said Andreas Haarstrick, a professor at TU Braunschweig who oversaw Samaan’s doctoral dissertation. “I immediately noticed his inspiration and strong will. I think, because of his disability, he had to prove himself more than others, and that was, I think, a successful recipe.”
While working toward his doctorate in Germany, Samaan lost his sight almost entirely and began using software that reads texts aloud and was purchased by a German university especially to help him study. “It cost about 1,700 euros, which is expensive, and it is not available at Egyptian universities,” he said. “But it helped me a lot in studying, especially since I could not learn Braille because it has to be learned at a young age.”
Haarstrick does not deny that Samaan’s weak vision was a major handicap.
Getting a Ph.D. requires a lot of reading and research, he said. “But Samaan managed to do it on time, perhaps because he believed his future would be determined accordingly.”
Ahmed Salah al-Deeb, a professor at Kafrelsheikh University’s department of architecture at the Faculty of Engineering who has worked with Samaan, believes that Samaan is well-organized, tactful in his speech, and has a distinctive approach to his work. “He relied on theories, laws and equations to create a special method rather than relying on drawings,” he said. “He left a clear imprint through this. We were working with pencils, but he started using markers in recent years.”
Today, Samaan advocates for those with disabilities to get easier access to the buildings and campuses of Egyptian universities. “Architects should provide exterior spaces, public buildings and stairways to ease the movement of people with disabilities,” he said. He would like to see such building features as elevators that have enough space for wheelchairs and sound systems in classrooms that could assist blind students in understanding what is being written during lectures.
“Architecture is thought, art and philosophy. It must be used to serve all of society’s members without exception.”