When Khansa Maria and her brother were born blind, their father abandoned the family, believing his children would be unable to achieve anything in life due to their lack of sight.
As she grew up, Maria realized her father was not the only one who did not believe in her, as when she started applying to schools, she was rejected by some due to her disability.
“My mother wanted to prove that society’s expectation of her disabled kids was wrong,” she said. “The only way that she saw [to do that] was to mainstream us and not put us in special schools, so that we could earn proper degrees and be able to support ourselves in the future.”
Maria, who was born and raised in Pakistan, eventually got into one of the most competitive schools in Lahore, although the administration was doubtful about her success as she was the first blind student to be admitted.
Nevertheless, Maria defied all odds and upon her completion of A-Levels, was not only one of the highest-achievers from her school at Cambridge International Examinations, but also secured a national-level distinction in one of her A-Level subjects. Today, Maria is a junior at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), a partner university of Qatar Foundation (QF), where she is majoring in international politics.
During her first two years at Education City, Maria participated in various debate competitions, including winning the national championship at Qatar Debate League, traveled to Greece for service learning, gave a TEDx talk, and interned at Qatar Career Development Center (QCDC), a member of QF.
People get surprised when I say I use YouTube. I listen to it! I can talk movies, I can talk about Harry Potter. Treat me normally as any other person.
“I didn’t plan to come to Qatar, but when I came to GU-Q for Georgetown Admissions Ambassador Program Day with my mother, we met people here and realized that it was such a good environment,” stated Maria. “It's a liberal arts college, the class sizes are small, and financial aid was available, so I decided to come here.
“Qatar has a unique advantage: you earn a degree from the US, but you are close to home and part of a diverse environment.”
Maria is one of several students in Education City with a visual impairment who decided to enroll into QF’s universities to pursue their academic goals. Kholoud Abu-Sharida, a Qatari graduate of QF member Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) who was also born blind, received her master’s degree in translation studies, and says her time at Education City encouraged her to pursue her passion for writing.
In her poems and short stories, Abu-Sharida likes to create philosophical characters who embody deep emotions and connections to parents, home, and their country.
“The quality of education I received at QF has exposed me to more open doors, and I have become more ambitious to go forward,” said Abu-Sharida, reflecting on her time at HBKU. “I plan to continue studying and receive a PhD in creative writing, become a writer, and then translate my writings.”
Abu-Sharida has 10 siblings, three of whom are also blind. She attended a school for the blind in Bahrain along with one of her blind sisters, who she said has been her best friend and motivator in life throughout her academic life.
“My blind sister keeps nagging me to work because I procrastinate a lot, and my sighted sisters teach me how to match colors of my dresses and accessories, do shopping, and put make-up on,” Abu-Sharida added about her attachment to her siblings. “My mother raised all of us believing in the importance of educating her blind kids and the sighted ones equally.”
And when it comes to her education, Abu-Sharida credits Education City’s compact size and close-knit community for helping her navigate university without many issues.
“When the number of students is smaller, you are going to get more focus from the environment-makers—the professors, the dean, and everybody who is in charge,” Abu-Sharida explained. “So that’s why I felt like this place was loving me, and I was loving it. I belonged here.”
Both Maria and Abu-Sharida also praise their faculty for accommodating their needs by helping them to steer their way through classes, and providing them with audio books, soft copies of handouts, and scribes for written exams.
Fighting the social stigma
Maria and Abu-Sharida hail from different backgrounds, but there are echoes in the challenges they both faced in fighting the social stigma that comes with living with disabilities.
“I don’t like to attend large gatherings as I feel like I am only a ‘view’. No one interacts with you. People will talk to your companions, but not you,” Abu-Sharida explained, adding that her disability sometimes makes people hesitant to approach her.
“People get surprised when I say I use YouTube. I listen to it! I can talk movies, I can talk about Harry Potter,” said Maria. “Treat me as normally as any other person next to you. Understand that we don't bite. You can say words like ‘see’ and ‘look’. I'm the same person that you are, and I enjoy the same things.”
Maria added that while the community in Education City is very supportive, she still sometimes struggles with daily tasks such as using touch panels for light control, doing laundry at student housing, or walking to buildings not served by shuttle buses. Nevertheless, such struggles haven’t stopped her from doing everything independently, and she has placed engraved stickers in her room and laundry room over all things that don’t have braille marks.
Both Maria and Abu-Sharida, who share an appetite for writing, are determined to combine their education and passion for raising awareness about the understanding of people with disabilities.
At her internship at QCDC, Maria conducted focus groups with people with disabilities and officials from different companies in Qatar to contribute to a report about challenges faced by people with disabilities among the workforce of Qatar. The report was part of Qatar Career Guidance Stakeholders Platform, a biennial program hosted by QF in collaboration with UNESCO, which aims to develop an international-standard career guidance system in Qatar.
“I like the vision behind QF, as it is actively trying to find solutions to issues around us,” said Maria, who plans to become a disability consultant in future, and work with firms to make their products and services friendly for people with disabilities. “An example is the Career Guidance Stakeholders Platform – at least they are trying to understand the problems.
“It’s very important for people with disabilities to have a voice within any legislation made regarding them.”
I have never seen a [Disney] princess who has a certain disability, so I decided to create a blind princess to make people like me feel more confident.
Maria, along with another student and two professors from GU-Q, was also awarded a research grant by QF member Qatar National Research Fund to study the extent and impact of initiatives in Qatar toward inclusion of disabled persons in the workforce.
As for Abu-Sharida, due to her studies and experience as a scriptwriter at Baraem TV—a pre-school Arabic television channel where she currently works—she is currently writing a script for an animated movie she plans to produce independently, about a blind girl who becomes a princess.
“Disney’s princesses are beautiful and perfect; however, I have never seen a princess who has a certain disability,” said Abu-Sharida. “I decided to create a blind princess to make people like me feel more confident and able to show the world how beautiful they are and what they are capable of doing.”
This story is an updated version of an article previously published by QF in May 2018.