On August 12th, 2022, I passed my Ph.D. defense, which marks the passing of a major milestone in my life. I was proud, happy, and thrilled to share my accomplishment with my family, friends, and social media network after all the hard work I put into it. Not only my family were proud to celebrate my accomplishment but also numerous people were proud and happy to celebrate my accomplishment with me. Countless people said they admired my work and it was inspiring to them. The governor of the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, also met with me to express his gratitude towards me and how proud he was of me and my accomplishment. The overall positive reaction made me believe that many people are willing to learn about people with disabilities, accept them, and include them in society.
Many people are looking to hear about my story and my path toward earning my Ph.D. as a person who is blind. It is somewhat difficult for any person to write their own story as there are so many different angles to view it from but I feel it is my responsibility to share with you a summary of it. I have summarized my journey in the following sections: the beginning of my journey, starting university, going to graduate school, and starting my next chapter.
Beginning of My Journey
I was born with retinitis pigmentosa (rp) which causes my vision to decrease over time. When I went to the public schools near my home, my family realized that I have vision problems. I couldn’t read the text. The texts had to be large, and bolded, and the room must be well-lit for me to read. My family helped me prepare for school and finish my homework. While I waited for someone to help me, I tried to study as much as I could during the day independently. Since I was only able to read large, bolded text in a very well-lit place, I used to study on the roof of my home when the sun rose. I would take a break when the sun was too strong to sit outside and I would come back when it was less hot.
Even with my hard work and my family’s support, I still faced challenges because these schools were not designed to accommodate the needs of students who are blind or visually impaired. I was the only person who was blind throughout my K-12 education. Some teachers did accommodate me by giving me exams in large text or reading the exams out loud while others did not. Some teachers and students made me feel like I was not an educable person because my grades were affected by my blindness. While this feeling was painful for me, I trusted myself and knew I was facing these challenges because I was blind. I was a child and did not know how to speak up for myself.
A message to teachers: When a student faces challenges that affect their performance in school, try to support them and be understanding. Never say something offensive that makes them doubt their ability. They must remember you supporting them not holding them down. Remember that you are the center of your classroom. Everyone in the classroom is listening and watching you. Your reaction will be mimicked and repeated by others in the class for years after. Always look for different ways to make students feel included and respected in the classrooms so others follow your lead.
Despite all of the challenges I faced throughout my K-12 education, I believed in my ability and so did my family. I always believed that I am strong and I could be a role model to others. It became my mission to raise awareness about blindness and other people with disabilities to prevent anyone from facing the same challenges that I had faced. I went to a different city in Saudi Arabia to get my bachelor’s degree. I decided to study mass media and journalism because I wanted to raise awareness through media.
The university where I completed my bachelor’s degree had a disability center that provided different accommodations for students who are blind and visually impaired. At the university, I learned about different assistive technology that I could use. I also learned about different supports and accommodations that students who are blind and visually impaired use to be more independent. When I received all the accommodations that I needed, such as a screen reader and an assistant, I thrived in my education. The challenges I faced earning my bachelors were nothing compared to the educational challenges I had in my K-12 education. When I faced problems with my professors, I was able to talk with them about the issue, unlike when I was in high school.
At university, I learned a lot about myself and my advocacy skills. I was always supporting people who needed someone to advocate for them. I also organized and led many activities and events to raise awareness about and for people who are blind and visually impaired at the university. Because of the challenges I faced and how I overcame them, I felt it is my responsibility to prevent anyone from experiencing any challenges due to their blindness or disability.
A message for university leaders and administrators: Always make sure that students who are blind and visually impaired have the accommodations they need to be successful in their education. Make sure also that students, faculty, and professors are aware of the services and accommodations that the university provides to students who are blind and visually impaired so that when they suspect a student needs it, they can share the information with them.
A message to everyone: If you face a challenge in your life, do not hesitate to continue. You never know what is waiting for you.
Going to Graduate School
When I received my bachelor’s degree, it was not enough for me to achieve my goal of raising awareness and making a positive change in the life of people who are blind and visually impaired. I, therefore, decided to continue my graduate education.
I received a scholarship from the Saudi government to complete my graduate education in the United States. With my mission to empower people with disabilities, I completed my dual master’s degrees in special education and comparative international development education. I felt that I could empower people with disabilities by learning about different education systems around the globe and by having a background in special education. I then went on to learn about different disability policies and how to assess and evaluate the impact of those policies on people with disabilities in my Ph.D. program in evaluation studies. I received support from different individuals in my department which helped me complete my Ph.D. program and work towards my mission. Faculty and staff made me feel like I belonged to the department and felt included.
During my graduate studies, however, I faced so many different challenges including adjusting to a new culture, academic challenges, and social challenges. As an international student, I had to adjust myself to the American culture. I had to learn the language, the common etiquette, and how to navigate the university system. While studying in the U.S., I realized how blindness affected different parts of my life. I had always faced academic challenges such as inaccessible course materials, websites, and software. In the United States, however, my blindness had a greater impact on my social life. I tried to attend activities with my friends. When they weren’t available, I couldn’t attend social activities or participate in leisure activities because they are not designed with people who are blind and visually impaired in mind.
In general, graduate students are isolated due to their studies. But for me, as someone who is blind, the isolation was more intense. I tried to participate in social events, activities, and different sports, but surprisingly, most of them were not accessible. I pushed myself to join different group projects and collaborate with others to cope with the isolation and socialize with others. I also kept myself busy by developing training, and workshops, and writing articles to raise awareness about blindness. This blog #diverselyblind was part of my plan to deal with my isolation.
A message to students and everyone: People who are blind and visually impaired are just human beings. They need to be socialized with others. If you know someone who is blind, try to include them in your social activities. You may be surprised by the value they can add to your life. Blindness naturally detaches the individual from their social environment and it creates a barrier for them to build relationships with others. You may need to intentionally reach out to them and try to accommodate their needs to include them in your activities.
Starting My Next Chapter
I was persistent because of my mission to empower people who are blind and visually impaired. Whenever I faced any challenges, I remembered this mission and it motivated me to continue. It is still my mission and now I am moving on to the next chapter in my life. My goal is to learn more skills and apply them to empowering people with disabilities through different research and projects. I am excited to start this next part of my life.
Final message: Inclusion does not happen on its own. Every individual must intentionally adjust their attitude and reaction to make others feel included.