Amman—For 1,500 meters, a path marked by high-visibility yellow tiles stretches from the main entrance of the University of Jordan to facilities like the library, the bank and the student affairs office.
This “Safe Pathway” was recently installed to help blind and visually impaired students move around the campus independently, without having to rely on companions to guide them.
Once they get accustomed to the “road signs” in the path’s tactile surface—long straight lines indicate sections where they can safely proceed directly ahead; raised circles warn that steps or other potential hazards lie ahead—blind or visually impaired students will be able to navigate stairs and ramps safely, “away from the streets and traffic, and away from benches and trees along the sidewalks,” said Omar Abu Haniyeh, one of the project’s supervisors and a visually impaired professor at the university’s Faculty of Education.
A group of advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities started the Safe Pathway project at the university several years ago. They reached an agreement with the United States Agency for International Development and the University of Jordan to provide the path. It is the first such project in the kingdom and is being tested for use at other universities.
The destinations along the pathway’s track were chosen based on suggestions from students with visual disabilities to determine the most common locations they need to reach. The pathway will later be extended to a distance of one kilometer before similar projects are begun at other universities.
No official statistics exist for the number of students with visual disabilities in Jordan’s universities. However, one student estimated that there are about 200 such students at the University of Jordan alone.
In Jordan, there are about one million people with some type of disability, out of a total population of more than nine million, according to figures cited by the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government agency that oversees issues affecting people with disabilities. The most common types of disability in the kingdom are visual impairments, followed by mobility and hearing impairments. (The most recent World Health Organization data indicate there are 39 million blind people in the world and 246 million with low vision.)
As in most Arab countries, Jordanian students with disabilities face many difficulties that limit their ability to continue their university education.
Problems include a lack of supporting infrastructure in the universities and a scarcity of funds for making adjustments to better accommodate their needs, such as making bathrooms more accessible, building ramps and creating lecture halls and laboratories suitable for students with physical disabilities.
There are also shortcomings in areas like providing study materials and instruction and adding campus signage using formats and technologies that assist persons with disabilities in their studies and in finding their way around university facilities. (See a related article, “The Blind Side of Arab Education: Disabled Students.”)
The kingdom’s new university accreditation law requires universities to provide appropriate facilities for students with disabilities. “The provision of adequate facilities and support services is essential for the accreditation of universities and getting a quality certification,” said Zeyad al-Anber, assistant head of Jordan’s Higher Education Accreditation Commission.
A specialized committee visits each university annually, inspecting campuses to make sure that facilities for people with special needs are available and conducting interviews with students to learn their opinions of such services.
However, many universities are still far from being fully committed to providing these services.
“I visited some universities where there is a great lack of such facilities and services,” said Muhannad al-Azza, secretary-general of the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Al-Azza believes that the roots of the problem begin with school education, which also suffers from a lack of services for students with disabilities, affecting their progress in schools and higher education. “It is rare to find a disabled student in a scientific discipline, although there is no law hindering this,” he said.
According to Jordan’s Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 21, “No person may be excluded from higher education institutions or be denied the right to study any specialization available therein on the basis of, or because of, disability.”
This law is already being applied, according to al-Azza, and no disabled students are prevented from studying the discipline they want to study. In addition, universities give a discount of 90 percent on tuition fees for students in this group. So the problem is not in the law.
Instead, the underrepresentation in the sciences of students with disabilities stems from other causes, al-Azza and others said.
“Computer sciences, mathematics, chemistry and physics curricula are not prepared for the blind to study in the primary grades,” said Abu Haniyeh, the University of Jordan professor involved in the Safe Pathway project. “In the early grades,” he said, “students in this group need a qualified teacher, in addition to supporting tools such as blocks so blind students can feel and recognize the shapes of pre-prepared forms and their nature.”
Similar problems confront students with hearing and speech disabilities. Few deaf students succeed in high school, according to an article in the Arabic-language newspaper Al Ghad, because of the lack of educators qualified in dealing with these students and because of poor proficiency in the use of sign language.
“These problems lead to misinformation of students and confusion in their understanding of [scientific] material,” said Abu Haniyeh. As a result, they are almost forced to study humanities disciplines at the university level.
Al-Azza believes there is no magic wand to solve the problem. Progress in improving services and support for disabled students, he said, depends primarily on “the community and institutions’ culture and their realization that these services are a necessity, not mere accessories, as the basis for ensuring students’ right to education.”