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A Tunisian Scientist Invents Navigation Aid for the Blind

TUNIS—After two years of research, Balkis Friaa, a textile-engineering scientist at the University of Monastir, designed a special textile that can be placed in the insoles of shoes to help blind people navigate their way.

The fabric contains sensors that identify obstacles and vibrate or give other signals to help the person navigate around them, according to the researcher.

“As I was a textile specialist,” says Friaa, “I developed electronic sensors inside ‘smart fabrics’ that could be put into the shoes’ insoles so that they will be lightweight and inexpensive.”

Friaa’s research is part of a worldwide movement toward developing “smart fabrics” that can provide crucial information to the person wearing them. A research team at Canada’s Université du Québec à Chicoutimi has worked on a similar idea and obtained a patent for the invention. Friaa was awarded a grant by the Canadian nonprofit Mitacs to join the university and work with the team, so she can further develop her idea for “smart shoes.”

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“The university is supposed to provide people to help us during the exams so we can dictate our answers to them. But they often miss the exams’ dates or come late, which creates a great psychological strain on us.”

Hamzah el-Benzarti
A second-year law student who is blind

Friaa’s interest in the problem comes from her knowledge of the difficulties faced by blind students on their academic path, difficulties that prevent many of them from completing their university studies. “Unfortunately, most public universities do not have enough advanced tools to facilitate disabled students’ education, most of whom are forced to drop out,” she said.

Obstacles to Learning

No official statistics exist on the number of students with special needs at Tunisia’s public universities. However, the Tunisian statistical agency estimates that the country has 208,000 people with disabilities, 46 percent of whom are classified as having physical disabilities, 27 percent with mental disabilities, 12 percent with auditory disabilities, 11 percent with visual impairment and 4 percent with multiple disabilities. Although Tunisian law emphasizes the responsibility of the state and society to protect people with disabilities, the reality is that most of them are marginalized and excluded, and 60 percent are unemployed.

“Most of the public universities do not have a friendly and suitable infrastructure for people with special needs, whether blind or handicapped, because most of the university buildings are old and rented,” said Mounji al-Nuaimi, director of student affairs at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. “Therefore, universities cannot change the designs of their buildings as required.”

The lack of accessible infrastructure is not the only problem. Most public universities are unable to provide even basic services, such as Braille books and references, for example, for those who need them. That drives some visually impaired students to attend private universities, despite their high cost.

The family of Hamzah el-Benzarti, a second-year blind law student at a private university, had to borrow money to pay the tuition at a private university after he failed his courses three years in a row at a public one.

“The university is supposed to provide people to help us during the exams,” el-Benzarti said, “so we can dictate our answers to them. But they often miss the exams’ dates or come late, which creates a great psychological strain on us.” Because of the lack of books in Braille, blind students need to have someone available to read texts to them and help them find references, he said.

Fatima Ghia, a second-year law student at the University of Sousse, a public institution, has physical disabilities that impair the use of her legs and arms. She said the Ministry of Higher Education neglects the needs of students like her.

“Unfortunately, I have no rights at the law school where I study,” she said. “I have a very hard time moving around the campus and I cannot attend some of the lectures on top floors.”

The difficulties faced by students with disabilities in Tunisia intersects with the suffering of thousands of their counterparts in many Arab countries. (See the following related articles: “Options for Special-Needs Students Are Few at Egyptian Universities” and “The Blind Side of Arab Education: Disabled Students”).

However, some universities, such as those in Jordan, have moved toward improving their infrastructure. (See a related article, “University of Jordan Opens a ‘Safe Path’ for Blind Students”).

Tunisian students hope they will someday get improved facilities in their own universities.

“I hope that Friaa will be able to carry out her research and that the shoe will be available here in Tunisia at a reasonable price,” said el-Benzarti. “This is a dream I hope will come true soon.”


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