Kalimat Foundation makes 30,000 books accessible to children in 11 countries
SHARJAH – Kalimat Foundation’s “ARA” initiative has become a global role model for empowering blind and visually-impaired children, and ensuring their right to access resources of knowledge, as it is the very first initiative to run surveys on children who are blind, visually impaired, or who have other print disabilities, in the Middle East, North and East Africa.
ARA’s quest to provide sources of knowledge to this group of children has been the most significant, given that since its inception in 2017, it has distributed tens of thousands of accessible books to schools as well as public and private entities in many countries around the world.
The initiative’s exceptional efforts came as a response to the surveys’ results which indicated that accessible books in the Arab world are scarce, most blind children don’t have access to them, and there was a troubling gap in offering them equal opportunities with their sighted peers. This led to the initiative to produce 30,000 books in accessible formats, including braille, large print, and audiobooks.
These books were made available to more than 45 public and private institutions as well as various entities in 11 countries, in addition to all UAE schools to support inclusivity, in collaboration with the Emirates Schools Establishment (ESE).
Countries across three continents, namely; Asia, Africa and North America benefited from the ARA Initiative, including the UAE, the KSA, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Oman, Algeria, and the USA.
The ground-breaking success is the first phase of the initiative’s adjectives that seek to support blind and visually-disabled children, help them develop their capabilities in literacy by providing reading content in accessible formats, highlight the efforts aimed at helping them to integrate better into society, as well as educate publishers about technologies and tools used to produce and publish accessible books.
The initiative did not stop at those local and international milestones, but also produced more than 100 EPUB3 titles, giving visually-impaired children the opportunity to access a library of books whose text size and colour can be easily modified according to their needs.
Amna Al Mazmi, Manager of Kalimat Foundation (KF), said: “Today, we celebrate the distribution of the first batch of accessible-book production. We were able to achieve this remarkable success thanks to the vision of Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, Founder and Chairperson of KF, and her full support to blind and visually-disabled children, in life with her firm belief in their right to access sources of knowledge, and bolster their presence and participation in social and creative life on par with their peers.”
“Our future plans comprise the production of new titles of accessible books. We will also offer training to more publishing houses on the production of EPUB3 books to further enhance the integration of visually-impaired children with their sighted peers, and bridge the critical shortage gap in the public libraries across the Arab world in terms of accessible Arabic books,” she added.
Al Mazmi remarked that the future plans also comprise the Ara Discussion Circle, which will be organised this month, and will be attended by blind and visually-impaired individuals, as well as Visual Impairment organizations, and publishing houses. KF will share its achievements and future goals, and hear from the attendees about their needs and interests, in order to work together and bridge the accessible book gap by activating the Marrakesh Treaty authorization.
Over the past six years, KF achieved tangible accomplishments in forging international treaties and opening collaboration channels with like-minded entities as well as offering education and training opportunities to elevate the accessible-book ecosystem. In 2018, it signed off a cooperation agreement with ABC to produce Arabic accessible ebooks, and in 2019, it offered training to 10 MENA-based publishing houses about the mechanism of accessible EPUB3 book production. ARA also organised a series of workshops to raise awareness about the importance of blind children’s integration in their communities in the Middle East, North and East Africa.
Exceptional Publishing Rights
Through the ARA initiative, KF became UAE’s first non-profit to secure publishing rights under the Marrakesh Treaty, administered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The UAE Ministry of Economy authorised KF to facilitate access of the visually-impaired and print-disabled to published works in line with the terms of the treaty, to reproduce, distribute, and make copies of published works available in accessible formats for the blind, visually-impaired, and otherwise print-disabled.
On the importance of the Marrakesh Treaty, Adel Al Zumar, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Emirates Association of the Visually Impaired (EAVI), said: “This agreement was a dream to many visually-impaired children in the Arab world, to have reading material in accessible formats such as braille or audiobooks. It will enable many visually-impaired individuals, especially children, to read and access a wide variety of accessible books.”
Short-listed for International Awards
KF produced 100 EPUB3 titles, following a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed off with Knowledge without Borders’ cultural initiative “1001 Titles” in 2019, to bridge the gap in Arabic accessible content for children aged 3-12 years. In recognition of ARA’s great efforts, it was shortlisted twice for ABC’s International Excellence Award for Accessible Publishing, in the Initiative category, in 2020 and 2022.
Through ARA’s efforts, a host of representatives of public and private entities that benefited from the initiative stressed its significant impact on children’s access to sources of knowledge and full integration in the student community, particularly in their early years.
Dr Najah Al Khalayla, Director of the Blind Academy, Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum School in Amman, Jordan, stated: “A story would never make students feel bored, but it ignites their passion for learning. The best part of Kalimat Foundation’s ARA initiative is that it allows students to read the story on their own. Reading those stories enriches their vocabulary and gives them a broader range of words to use in their daily and academic life.”
Ensherah Saadeh, Head of Department – Community and Social Engagement at the Australian International School, noted: “For visually impaired children, the library was a dark and mysterious place, but as soon as Kalimat Foundation provided accessible books including braille storybooks, the library became their favourite place and a world full of dreams and imagination.”
Khaoula Besharat, Mother of Tala, a blind child, commented: “The storybooks we received from Kalimat Foundation and the workshops offered all year round were aimed at empowering blind children with a sense of belonging, capability and equality with their sighted peers.”
Partners and Sponsors
Sponsors, partners and supporters who contributed to the success of the ARA Initiative journey comprise the Hamriyah Free Zone Authority, UAE Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Community Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Emirates Association of the Visually Impaired, 1001 Titles initiative, Sharjah City For Humanitarian Services, Sharjah Public Libraries, House of Wisdom, as well as Sharjah Islamic Bank, Sharjah Charity International; partners of future ARA plans, who will continue to sponsor the production and distribution of ARA’s second batch of accessible books.