Qatar Deaf: An Emerging Community
Published: Jul 12th, 2013
A Brief History of Sign Language in Qatar
Qatari Sign Language was formally recognised by the Qatari Government in 2001. Four years later, in 2005, the first Deaf centre emerged with encouragement from the Government – now known as the Qatar Cultural and Social Centre for Deaf (QCSCD). At the moment they are the only organisation representing Deaf people in Qatar. Interestingly, the QCSCD are not independent of the government as, according to the World Federation of the Deaf Global Survey Report Interim Regional Secretariat for the Arab Region (WFD RSAR) in 2008, they still receive direct financial assistance.
The QCSCD has been proactive in the creation of an Arabic Sign Language dictionary. Though the QCSCD are passionate about organising events for Deaf people and unifying Deaf communities from the Middle East, there is still a lack of formal sign language education in the area and a limit to the educational opportunities available to Deaf people. The 2008 WFD RSAR stated that the QCSCD do have an Interpreter Code of Ethics, however, Qatar does not have laws to prevent discrimination against those who are Deaf or disabled. It is clear that whilst great efforts and strides are being made, more holistic and underpinning legislation needs to occur before the other elements are granted legal force.
Spending the majority of my life living in the UK I have always been fascinated to know what it might be like to be a Deaf person in the Middle East. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Qatar in May 2012, through my contact David Banes, the CEO of the Qatar Assistive Technology Center (MADA) based in Doha. He invited me to come to Qatar and conduct some informal research regarding the new Deaf community and the country’s support of it. Specifically, I wanted to see what MADA and other organisations are doing with and for the Deaf and disabled community. David was also interested in any perspectives and feedback I had from my own experiences as a Deaf person, as well as any insights I could provide from my background in accessibility project management and rights campaigning.
Deaf Education and Interpreting Services in Qatar
There seems to be a lack of information about what services exist for Deaf people in the Middle East generally and as part of my trip I wanted to find out more about what education and life opportunities are available to Deaf people living in Qatar.
I visited The Audio Complex School where the girls and boys are taught separately, as is the custom in Muslim countries. Their teaching method is to use speech and lipreading with hard of hearing students and sign language with the more profoundly Deaf children. I thought this was an interesting strategy and whilst I liked the child-centric approach, I wondered if this was an unnecessary segregation of the pupils. It was good, though, to see sign language being used within the school and that the teachers were enthusiastic about its use in the classroom. It is notable, however that there is only 1 Deaf teacher and he is only able to teach in the boys’ section of the school. Clearly, there are a lack of Deaf role models for children. Easier said than done though, as evidenced by the fact that this is an area of concern within the UK also.
There is a limit to Deaf people’s access to education in that there seems to be a lack of provision post-primary level. As a result the opportunities for Deaf people to access further and higher education are problematic, not only from an educational standpoint, but also due to the lack of sign language interpreting provision and awareness of the support needed for Deaf students. In response, some wealthier families decide to send their Deaf children to America and the UK for schooling where the provision is more extensive. My question is, what happens to Deaf people who come from poorer families?
I was also able to visit the University of Qatar where I met with their disability support co-ordinator. It was encouraging to see that they had support in place for blind and partially sighted students where they were using software such as Jaws and also meeting the needs of other disabled students. There seemed, however, to be a lack of awareness of what to provide for Deaf people who might attend. At the time of my visit, there was just one Deaf student who was in his first term. He was not a sign language user and he was being supported by a notetaker. Other support needs development, such as lip speaking and speech to text captioning and I hope that, with time, more educational establishments in Qatar will be inclusive of Deaf and disabled people and offer them a wider choice of support. I know from experience that it can be isolating when you do not have the right support in place and that it has far reaching implications, way beyond the classroom.
According to the WFD RSAR 2008 report there are not enough sign language interpreters in the area. The same report stated that there were 6 interpreters who had formal qualifications. Unfortunately during my visit in May 2012 it seemed that there had been little advancement and the development of Arabic Sign Language and interpreting qualifications is still an area that is in need of significant input. At present in Qatar, sign language interpreters do not always get paid and much of the time they are expected to offer their services for free, especially those who are CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults). Therefore there is not a great demand or enthusiasm for people to become interpreters, which is surprising for a country with such financial ‘muscle’. More recently I have been told that a university in Doha are in the early stages of developing an MA course in sign language interpreting, to be established in 2015/16. This is still in its early stages and we await eagerly for more information.
The overall impression that I got from my visit is that there is a severe lack of information available about the services and organisations out there for Deaf people and, because of this, it would be beneficial for a full mapping exercise to be conducted in order to track exactly what is on offer in Qatar whilst also identifying the major gaps in provision.
Other Disability Services in Qatar
The Shafallah Center was established in 1999 at the behest of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned so that Qatari society could provide comprehensive services to children with disabilities. I was very impressed when I visited the centre, as it is funded by the Government and therefore is equipped with the most up-to-date assistive technology and aids, such as state of the art sensory rooms. I was also humbled to meet with 2 Deaf staff members. There seems to be an open attitude to supporting disabled people in Qatar and a growing number of organisations set up to cater for their needs, but there is a real lack of specialised services for Deaf people.
While I was in Doha I was honored to meet Mr Ali Al-Senari, the president of the Qatar Cultural and Social Centre for Deaf (QCSCD) and to be invited to their first forum on training for Deaf women. He was a fantastic host and it was great to be able to gain an insight into the Deaf community in Qatar and further afield, since the event was attended by people from all over the Middle East. Deaf people and interpreters came from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, to name but a few! The president of the WFD Youth Section, Ms Jenny Nilsson and the president of The European Union of the Deaf, Ms Berglind Stefánsdóttir also attended the 5 day event.
I was fascinated by what I was able to see in Qatar and I felt warmly welcomed by all the organisations I met with. In particular I really enjoyed meeting with Abdulah Al-Mulla the General Secretary of the QCSCD who took me around Qatar and the surrounding areas. I was also humbled by meeting with Ali Al-Sennari, the Chairman of the QCSCD where we worked with a BSL/English, Arabic/English and an Arabic sign language/Arabic interpreter all at once! It
was certainly a different way of working for me and we were both happiest when we could communicate directly with each other using International Sign.
It is wonderful to see a country making such strides to support both Deaf and disabled people, with organisations and funding being provided. As stated though, it is hard to effect real change if these standards and movements are not concreted into Law. More needs to be done on disability awareness and the upholding and preservation of rights, from a legal standpoint. Else, one is relying on the altruistic nature of those involved, hoping that everyone will tow the line. As expectations grow, and financial demands increase, if the ethos behind this movement is not enshrined in law, we could see a back-slipping starting to occur.
I am very keen to return to Qatar and I very much hope to establish some partnership work there in the future. I would like to take the opportunity to say a big thank you to all of the organisations I met with and in particular to David Bane of MADA who was able to put me in contact with a lot of the other amazing people I met with. If you are in the UK and are interested in supporting the work in the Middle East, or if you are based in the Middle East and would like Deaf Unity’s input, please get in touch!
Also if you or anyone you know is from Qatar or another area in the Middle East, then we would love you to contact us. Perhaps you could write or sign an article yourself to give Deaf Unity about your own experiences, challenges and hopes for the region.
If you would like to take a look at the World Federation of the Deaf Regional Secretariat for the Arab Region (WFD RSAR) as mentioned throughout this article please see the link below –WFD RSAR Report
Abdi Gas, our CEO, visits Qatar for the first time to meet members of the Deaf community and to hear their stories. An inspiring trip that led to many exciting discussions, he shares his experiences with you here. There will be more trips in the near future, so this is the first of a series of articles. For more information about Abdi and his background, see our team page
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