Visually Impaired Children in Palestine: From Despair to Hope
The terms low vision (also referred to as partially sighted) and blindness are defined by the World Health Organization; low vision is defined as visual acuity of less than 6/18, but equal to or better than 3/60, or a corresponding visual field loss to less than 20 degrees in the better eye with best possible correction; while blindness is defined as visual acuity of less than 3/60, or a corresponding visual field loss to less than 10 degrees in the better eye with best possible correction
Vision impairment can happen at any age. Most vision conditions in children will stay the same throughout their lives. Some conditions might result in vision problems for only a short time, but others might get worse over time, resulting in much poorer vision or blindness as the child gets older.
By: Shatha Jararaa
Visual impairments have a real effect on learning in the classroom. Family and school teachers may diagnose visual impairment through several sings such as holding the book very close to the eyes and taking longer time than usual when writing assignments. However, there are specific standards to identify these cases and evaluate them. An-Najah National University Optometry Department established a special clinic for visual rehabilitation through a Tempus project, Jusur. One of the project's entrepreneurs was Dr. Ithar Beshtawi, Head of the Optometry Department and assistant professor at An-Najah with a PhD in optometry from the University of Manchester in the U.K.
When I interviewed Dr. Beshtawi she mentioned that the program started in 2016 and targets visually impaired school age children who need special visual aids. It develops an accessible system in education, rehabilitation and home situation for visually impaired schoolchildren so they can participate in life according to the full potential of their capabilities.
These children face various challenges as their parents think that the only way for them to learn is dispatching them to the Schools for the Blind. There, they learn Braille and other skills of fully blind children. School specialists think that they learn better this way, but this is not true in all cases of partially sighted children with Albinism for example.
The program, funded by the Novum Foundation, was launched in cooperation with VISIO Holland and Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation (BASR) as well as the stakeholders of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. All partners hold periodical meetings to study the progress made on the project.
Optometry Department Role
Dr. Beshtawi said that the department offers low vision examination and assessment services.
The department lets the school teachers fill a questionnaire form for early diagnosis as their answers include signs of low vision. Then, the students are sent to the rehab clinic where they get proper screening, assessment and devices.
In other cases, the department visits different schools and offers a day for screening in the area.
Visual Rehabilitation Clinic
The Visual Rehabilitation Clinic was founded at the Pharmacy building in the New Campus where the staff receive referral cases as part of Jusur or not. In other words, the clinic is open for all children in the West Bank who get the rehab for free.
The clinic activities are sustainable. Dr. Beshtawi hopes to make the project a national program as it has expanded its work from including children from 6 till 12 years to a wider target group of visually impaired persons i.e. children from 0 till 18 years.
Dr. Beshtawi said: "The project aims to offer visually impaired children inclusive settings in the classroom (inclusive educational classroom) within general education allowing them to participate in extracurricular activities.
It also aims to perform early detection of visual impairment in schoolchildren. The team heads to north areas of the West Bank and offers children free primary screening and assessment."
Dr. Beshtawi mentioned that visual aids were considered a stigma in the Palestinian community. Many people refused to let their children wear them but some didn't. However, An-Najah team offered children Apple IPads that include applications dedicated for visually impaired. The IPads idea was more popular than the visual aids among the society.
Dr. Beshtawi concluded: "An-Najah is the only university in the West Bank to offer an optometry department. This department participates in the development of the society and the rehab clinic has paved the way for the production of trustworthy experts in this discipline. The clinic also offered our students the opportunity to practice what they learn, so optometry is developing to benefit as many people as possible. National duty grabbed me back home. I wanted to come back to give back."