Palestine has a high proportion of people with disabilities compared to the general population. Around 113,000 individuals suffer from at least one disability, which constitutes 2.7 per cent of the overall population.
Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalised and excluded groups in societies the world over. They are effectively barred from realising their right to healthcare and even education. Their disabilities also place them at a higher risk of physical abuse, and often exclude them from receiving adequate care and nutrition during humanitarian emergencies. They are also often likely to be amongst the poorest members of the population, with girls facing a double disadvantage due to social stigma and traditional cultural barriers.
Education is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of discrimination and poverty that children with disabilities often face. However, access to school for such children is usually limited by a lack of understanding about their needs, unsuitable school buildings and poor learning resources and facilities. More than a third of all disabled individuals aged 15 years and over in Palestine have never been to school.
The Vision Project, a collaborative partnership between the British charity Interpal and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), was planned to counter the cycle of deprivation faced by children with limited or no eyesight in the Gaza Strip, where ten years of the Israeli blockade have left those most vulnerable without adequate support and care. Providing a digital education initiative to 217 children by using electronic tablets and "Voice Dream Reader" technology allows digital information to be imported onto mobile devices to be read in a human voice. The project's conclusion was celebrated at a simple ceremony in Gaza on Monday, featuring some of the children who have benefited from the programme.
UNRWA's Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl is in no doubt about the importance of the scheme. "This project has had a tangible impact in the lives of children whose education prospects has been severely curtailed," he said. "Thanks to the Vision Project they have been given hope and a sense of optimism for a better future."
The project not only helped the children involved, but it also trained 33 UNRWA-registered teaching staff in the correct use of Voice Dream Reader technology in the classroom. The mobile app was generously donated by its inventor, Winston Chen.
"As a charity helping Palestinians in desperate need, Interpal is proud to have supported the Vision Project,"said Ibrahim Hewitt, chairman of the charity's Board of Trustees. "I am delighted that our grant to UNRWA, the largest in Interpal's history, was used to fund the technology-based project in its entirety. Our work is empowering visually impaired children – whose suffering often stems from armed conflict – to benefit from improved education and life chances."
Each child received a mobile device at school and textbooks were digitised, opening up a wealth of information, learning opportunities and creative initiatives. This is a big step in supplementing their basic education and further equips them with the necessary tools to integrate them fully into Palestinian society.
Beyond the Vision Project, Interpal has also provided a grant to support the installation of solar panels at UNRWA's Rehabilitation Centre for the Visually Impaired in Gaza. The Centre is pioneering renewable technology to ensure that its 1,250 users are no longer compromised by the frequent blackouts that occur as a result of poor infrastructure. Israel destroyed the only power plant in the besieged territory and prevents replacement and spare parts from being imported, so the plant operates at a limited level.
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