Sight beyond Vision
Zaman, Sabih Q., Islamic Horizons
Ambitious blind siblings pursue their dream to become computer programmers and create software for the disabled. BY SABlH Q. ZAMAN
THE DREAM: TO CREATE "TALKING software" in Urdu - Pakistan's national language - and establish a resource library for the blind in Pakistan. The dreamers: Hina Altaf, 26, and Imran Ahmed, 24, seniors at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI, who are working toward a B.S. in information technology (IT) and software development. Born blind, they are striving to become the first blind Pakistani software programmers.
Their story is one of success based upon determination, hard work and support from family, friends, and strangers. They were fortunate to have supportive parents who searched for facilities in Pakistan, where just becoming literate and educated remain challenges for the vast majority of Pakistanis.
They did not always know they were different. "I did not know I was blind when I was small. I was about five when I realized that I was different and went to a new school," said Altaf. "We knew others were watching TV with us, but did not know they were seeing something different." Ahmed added: "Eventually we would ask them what was happening during scenes with music, when no one was talking."
The siblings attended several schools before they enrolled, in 1996, in Lahore's Aziz Jehan Begum Trust Institute for the Blind (http://ajbtrust.org/). For the first time their curriculum included basic mobility skills (e.g., how to use a cane) as well as computer training and spoken English. Teachers and volunteers helped them practice spoken English, which would prove invaluable when they sought to continue their education. They also learned about different publications, for, according to Hina, "Aziz Jehan gave us the confidence to explore our resources and think of ways to learn more and fight for our rights. We contacted libraries in Britain, Canada, and South Africa to get English Braille books and audio magazines. We found pen friends from around the world and contacted them over the computer or by recording [and then mailing] tapes."
After completing the tenth grade, majoring in computer and general science, they were among the first batch of Pakistani students to matriculate in computer science. They went on to finish the twelfth grade and two years of college at a local Pakistani public institution that had no facilities for blind students. Friends and relatives helped them by reading the textbooks to them and sharing notes. Recreating the notes in Braille took hours.
The lack of computer classes for the blind, the key to their dreams, did not dampen their ambition. Deciding that their only alternative was to pursue an education overseas, in 2004 they applied to Carroll College (Carroll University since 2008) upon recommendations from relatives. Acquiring funds for this stage of their education would be another hurdle. Through pen friends like Gerald Clark of Port Huron, MI, whom they affectionately call "Grandpa Gerry," they learned of more resources. Clark introduced them to Dr. Sohail Akhtar Hasan of Flint, MI, a Pakistani physician who was eager to help after learning of their dream. He met them in Pakistan and agreed to sponsor them for one year. Funding secured, they set out during Aug. 2006 to start their freshman year at Carroll. Fundraising remained a constant challenge, with yearly expenses topping $22,000 for each of them. …