The image of a lighthouse is a powerful one: It connotes safety, illumination, hope, and knowledge. For the blind and visually impaired Arab inhabitants of Israel—a marginalized community within a marginalized community—AlManarah (Lighthouse), a first-of-its-kind self-help organization in the Arab society in Israel, founded in 2005 by advocate Abbass Abbass, provides both hope and guidance, a sense of community and a path for personal and social transformation. Abbass seeks to change the way Arab society in Israel, and further afield, views and integrates those with visual and other disabilities, and seeks to turn exclusion into inclusion.
Justice and equality, dignity and empowerment—these are not new ideas. Unfortunately, in many places and for many people, they remain just that: Dreams that have yet to take root and be realized. For the blind and visually impaired Arab inhabitants of Israel, a very new idea would be to take the dream of universal rights and marry it to an actionable plan for social justice. Arabs in Israel are already at a cultural and political disadvantage, a minority (approximately 20 percent) in a country at war with some of its surrounding Arab nations—and the Arab blind must contend with the additional burdens of ancient stigmas and modern ignorance. Abbass seeks to challenge stereotypes and to build capacity through advocacy, education, and empowerment. Through a set of comprehensive programs, Abbass is creating the first self-help organization for people with disabilities in Israeli Arab society; providing a bridge between various elements within Arab society, Arab and Jewish communities in Israel, and creating a model for Israel and, indeed, for other Arab countries.
Abbass’ concept for AlManarah is unique in its dialectic approach to the rights of the blind, in particular, and to disability rights in general. Although his focus is currently on the Arab blind of Israel, Abbass is committed to revolutionizing disability rights and social inclusion throughout the Arab World. He aims to transform both social perceptions and self-perceptions of the Arab blind; his organization fosters systemic social change through projects aimed at inclusion, integration and access, as well as self-change through therapy, community-building, and professional training. AlManarah utilizes two types of dialogue to achieve this goal. The first is intra-group dialogue—connection and collaboration within the Arab blind community of Israel. Integral to Abbass’ innovation is the idea of the blind helping each other. To do so, for instance, he has initiated the first Arabic Braille library in Israel, created an audio CD that informs the blind of their rights (i.e. now being adopted and distributed by the Israeli social security), and built a community center where blind Israeli Arabs can go for support, training, socializing, and employment advice.
The second kind of dialogue AlManarah facilitates is inter-group dialogue, integrating the blind into the larger Israeli Arab community through school and family outreach, leadership programs, parent and caregiver involvement, and supporting advocacy through the court system, and public education through the media. As part of this effort, Abbass is trying to encourage use of the term “persons with extra abilities” instead of “people with disabilities” or “disabled persons.” “We called our association ‘The Lighthouse’ because we think that we should light the path. Not the path of the blind, but the path for society as a whole. Our society is blind. It fails to see the blind,” Abbass told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
Abbass is the first person to have combined both self-help and societal change to assist the disabled Arabs in Israel. The innovation lies also in the approach and strategy: A rights-based approach for the empowerment of the individual, family and community, and action within society.
In the Israeli Arab World, as in the wider Arab World, a rights-based approach for people in general, and for people with disabilities in particular, is less prevalent than in other parts of the world. Moreover, where special rights do exist, people tend not to be aware of them, and the authorities often do not make the effort to let people know what they are entitled to. At the most basic level, people who are brought up feeling disenfranchised, disempowered, and less than fully human, are not well placed to seek their full civil rights. This is therefore a problem on both the individual and the state side.
In addition, there is a traditional stigma attached to disability in many societies, including Israeli Arabs. At the family level, there is an attitude of guilt, shame, and inferiority (i.e. there is something wrong with the family). The tendency is to ignore the problem, to hide the people with disabilities away, and to feel a strong sense of shame. Lacking contact with people with disabilities, the disabled also lack vital role models. When disability issues are addressed, it is likely to be through a top-down sense of charity and compassion, rather than through empowerment and self-help.
The lack of support is felt at all levels of society, from the individual to the family unit to the community. Exclusion begins early in life; according to Abbass, the parents of visually disabled children do not have the resources, and in many cases the awareness, to deal with their children’s special needs. The prevalent negative social attitude to disability also affects the personal realm, including finding a life partner.
The blind in the Israeli Arab community face steep challenges in many spheres. These include accessibility problems in Arab locales, ranging from neglected sidewalks to neglect by public institutions, and these extend to the blatant disregard of national disability rights in the Arab media and public sphere. The Arab community in Israel, more than ever before, is at the crossroads of three major dilemmas: The transition from tradition to modernity, the relationship between religious and secular life, and the tension between rural and urban communities. These tensions often leave aside the added concerns of those 100,000-plus Arabs with disabilities. In addition, in Israel, the Arab public’s preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the campaign for a separate Palestinian state have contributed to the general ignorance about the exclusion of the thousands of Israeli Arab’s with disabilities.
There are more than 6,000 blind and visually impaired Arab citizens of Israel. Not only are they socially excluded from their own community, but they also fail to receive resources and services from the Israeli state, which does not allocate sufficient resources for the Arab blind, and does not make an adequate effort to publicize the rights of the disabled. Communication between the blind and the government is usually conducted in Hebrew, which makes it difficult for the less educated to be independent. This disparity is compounded by ongoing budget shortfalls, and policies that, until recently, made it difficult for the blind to find work in either government ministries or the private sector without losing their disability allowance. “To employ people who have a certain disability, it is necessary to invest resources in adjustment, containment and understanding. This does not necessarily exist here, either in Arab society or in Jewish society,” says Abbass.
Abbass founded AlManarah in 2005, and staffed his organization primarily with Israeli Arab blind and visually impaired people. Through his organization, Abbass works to advance the status of the Arab blind and visually impaired on both the social and the individual level: By changing society’s perceptions of the blind and by changing the self-perceptions of the blind—the dialectic approach mentioned. His is the first Arab organization of its kind in the region. By fostering social awareness through outreach and advocacy, Abbass seeks to change the traditional stereotypes and social stigmas common in Arab society toward the blind. AlManarah’s activities include an extensive schedule of workshops and seminars, the distribution of relevant educational materials, leadership development, and self-help groups of Arab blind (and their parents, if relevant). In addition to outreach and support, Abbass and his colleagues advocate through the Israeli court system to ensure equal access and the protection of inalienable rights.
At the society level, Abbass works to remove the stigma of blindness by exposing the wider society to people with disabilities, and their condition, needs and views. He does this via work with schools, and through public events and publications. Each year, for example, more than 2,500 school children and adults from the Arab Israeli community are exposed to information about blindness through AlManarah’s activities, and hundreds of Arab blind and visually impaired people within Israel receive the direct services of Lighthouse. Its center, located in Nazareth, opened in 2005, and is a multi-purpose facility with its core function to serve as a professional, educational, and social hub. Currently, the organization is focused on four main projects in pursuit of comprehensive social change: Awareness; empowerment and skills development; personal reading and guidance; and, the audio library project.
To foster awareness, the center conducts workshops for parents and caretakers of the blind, and for the professionals serving them. Other workshops help to expose school children and university students to the world of the blind, including their needs and rights, which in turn serve to change attitudes and alter stereotypes. Abbass has created two models of school intervention to foster student awareness. The first model is simply a one-time workshop of an hour and a half, giving theoretical and practical background about being visually disabled, and provoking discussion and introspection about how to treat differently-abled people. The second model promotes the development of young leaders. Over 8 to 10 sessions, a group of students meets and designs a project to help the blind within their communities. One group, for instance, has published a book about blind people, while another embarked on an awareness campaign.
Abbass aims also to help individuals—first to know their rights, to know other people like themselves, and then to try to help themselves with the resources that his organization is building, such as the Braille library. The empowerment and skills development project works to overcome alienation through the establishment of self-help groups. These groups provide a framework for initiating mutual help, increasing self-confidence, and developing a cadre of Arab blind leaders to instigate social change. Several parallel initiatives are planned to augment the self-help groups. Abbass intends to broaden AlManarah’s professional and communication platforms by building a website compatible with the needs of the Arab blind, and by conducting training programs in computer literacy, languages, and preparation for psychometric exams. The development of creative abilities, including music, art, and theater, will also be encouraged. He also helps the families of the visually disabled by taking people out, discussing their futures with them, and running a help-line to answer questions.
For Almanarah’s third project, volunteers are recruited to serve as personal guides and reading assistants for blind Arab pupils and university students. Volunteers for this personal reading and guidance project undergo a uniquely designed training program that educates them on Abbass’ self-directed approach. Finally, there is the audio library project. Due to a dearth of Arabic Braille and recorded material, this new initiative will establish the first Arab library for the blind in Israel. The library will provide learning, scientific and artistic materials—some recorded, others in Braille and large print.
Abbass is also in contact with a number of Jewish and Arab human rights organizations. The needs and the difficulties of Jewish and Arab disability populations do overlap to some extent, and a cultural gap can be bridged here. For example, Abbass runs a joint Arab-Israeli GMAT preparation course for the blind. A part of the association’s budget comes from American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, within the Masira (Journey) Program for Advancing the Status of People with Disabilities in Arab Society in Israel. At the same time, Abbass’ focus is specifically on the Arab public, and building bridges to similar programs in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even the U.S. (i.e. as a guest of the U.S. State Department).
Abbass, a Nazarene Arab and himself visually impaired, is dedicated to changing attitudes toward and treatment of Arab citizens with visual disabilities in Israel. As a role model, he aims to grow other role models to help the community. Despite losing his eyesight early due to genetic complications (his parents are cousins), Abbass has achieved a remarkable amount in his young life (born in 1978). His focus has always been on education and leadership. Abbass’ father, a lawyer, provided a strong role model for him, while his large family of four brothers and two sisters was always there to act as a support system and sounding board. Combined with Abbass’ own strong motivation and determination, it is of little surprise that he’s achieved so much and is bubbling with new ideas and plans.
Abbass completed both his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in law at Hebrew University. After passing the Israeli bar exam and becoming a certified lawyer, he completed a master’s degree in business administration and the management of non-profit organizations at the University of Haifa. Commensurate with his interest in policy and advocacy, he is planning to obtain a doctorate in law, either at Hebrew University or abroad. His physical disability does not deter him. “It’s as if there is a demon pursuing me,” he says. “Instead of taking life easy, I have to be the best, to excel, to stand out. As if I owe someone something. That is what is instilled in us: For a blind person to stand out, he has to be the best.” The fact that Abbass was appointed last month to be the first Arab member of the recently formed advisory council of the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities adds yet more proof to his success and the relevance of his work.
Abbass’ passion for the rights of Israel’s Arab blind, and their inclusion and empowerment, was fueled by moral outrage born from personal experience. After graduation, he applied for a job at an Israeli human rights organization, feeling confident that he was the ideal candidate for the job. However, reversing their over-the-phone demeanor, the staffers attempted to convince Abbass that he was “not right” for the job. Abbass suspected that their reversal was due to the fact that over the phone, he had not mentioned his blindness. Apparently, they felt it was an insurmountable barrier, despite his stellar qualifications.
Blindness, and the social and logistical obstacles it creates, has never stopped Abbass from pursuing his dreams. At school, when Braille textbooks were not available, he engaged students who volunteered to read aloud to him. He understands that the supposedly impossible can be accomplished through hard work and good organization, though he admits that being blind in a seeing society does require extra effort. It is his hope that his activity reduces the obstacles confronting blind people in the future; facilitating a full and normal engagement with life for those people who may have limited sight but no shortage of vision.