Tamer Bahaa

Fellow Ashoka
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 2003
This description of Tamer Bahaa's work was prepared when Tamer Bahaa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 .


Tamer Bahaa guides people who are deaf and mute both to claim their rights as citizens and to overturn damaging stereotypes about their abilities.

La nuova idea

In Egypt, people who are deaf and mute daily face almost insurmountable obstacles. The hearing and speaking public–the vast majority of teachers, neighbors, families, employers–assumes a correlation between deafness and low intelligence, a correlation that manifests itself in damaging stereotypes and restricted opportunities for full citizenship. To integrate deaf and mute people into society and correct society's estimation of their abilities, Tamer improves their facility with written and spoken Arabic; improves their general education by teaching their teachers more effective pedagogical methods; and offers the deaf and mute exposure to a larger world through organized trips, informal meetings, and instructive lectures. Tamer's approach does not favor one therapy-based approach over another. Instead, it takes shape as a rights-based effort that aims to equip members of this group with the tools and opportunities they need to communicate clearly, gather information from the hearing world, and convene as a group to secure access to information, education, jobs, and healthcare. The main beneficiaries of this effort are those who cannot hear or speak. But groups with other physical differences stand to gain as Egyptian society opens up to these millions of citizens, now virtually invisible to mainstream society, and begin to understand them as equally, although differently gifted.

Il problema

An estimated two million Egyptians are profoundly hearing-impaired or deaf from childhood; of these, many are also mute, lacking the ability to form sounds into words. More so here than in more developed countries, factors like severe pollution, accidents, and disease contribute to hearing loss. A prescription of the wrong drug to either the pregnant mother or to her newborn may result in deafness. One accident, one dose, and a child's world falls silent, cutting her off from those around her, and profoundly altering her experience of life in society.
Any deaf and mute person anywhere in the world has difficulty communicating clearly who he is, what he wants, and what he thinks to a hearing and speaking society. In Egypt and in many parts of the Arab world, poor education and societal misunderstanding make the challenges more pronounced. Teachers are not deaf, and they do not use–or, in most cases, even know–sign language, the preferred language of most deaf and mute communities.Beyond these deficiencies, though, is the reality that teaching traditional academics is not the aim in most schools for the deaf and mute. Teachers and parents generally see students' school difficulties as a reflection of low intelligence, the inability to learn (evident from the term formerly used in some English-speaking countries: "deaf and dumb"). Schools are expected only to teach a vocation–carpentry, construction, or sewing, for example. And deaf students are prevented by law from pursuing a university education.
Consequently, illiteracy is often the outcome of schooling for this group. Tamer says that 9 of 10 deaf students emerge from school unable to read and write Arabic. And while it is true that illiteracy among the general population is high–40 percent of men and 60 percent of women are functionally illiterate–people who can hear have access to a world of information, opinions, and ideas through many other means. For the deaf, though, literacy is the vital link to the hearing society. Without it, Tamer and others contend, deaf people know next to nothing about politics, their rights, and their opportunities. For instance, they are hard pressed to explain an illness to doctors, access legal help, find a job, earn a living, or raise a family. These problems perpetuate damaging stereotypes of deaf and mute communities.

La strategia

Tamer approaches the problems in several ways. He standardizes communication tools that link deaf and mute people to each other and to a hearing society; improves formal education by focusing on teacher education; provides opportunities for learning and general exposure to the world; and advocates for access to medical care.
Through the membership organization he has formed, Tamer prioritizes literacy as a first step to advancing citizenship rights and responsibilities: by reading Arabic-language newspapers and books, deaf people learn about their society and the ways and means of active citizenship. They can educate themselves, become informed advocates, and overcome societal stereotypes that equate deafness with low intelligence. On a more practical level, learning to read and write allows deaf people to understand road signs, court orders, job manuals, and textbooks. They can use computers and surf the Internet.
To achieve universal literacy among those who cannot hear or speak, Tamer works with citizen groups in neighboring countries to expand the sign language dictionary they created several years ago, the first of its kind and a step in the direction of formalizing the sign language used among deaf people here. In addition, Tamer is designing a literacy program that will help hearing and deaf people learning to sign to lip-read and read and write Arabic. The program matches Arabic words (shown on one side of a television screen or monitor) with other visual aids like a photograph of the corresponding sign and the movement of the lips when forming the word (shown on the opposite side). Tamer plans to make the literacy program available on his organization's Web site and eventually on television throughout the Arabic-speaking world. He hopes to take advantage of the president's national literacy campaign, an effort that has enabled televised literacy classes for the hearing public. He and his team are working through members of the parliament who look forward to helping the program achieve national visibility. Tamer believes that the tools he designs will be useful beyond Egypt, and he is working with citizen groups in neighboring Arabic-speaking countries to introduce them more broadly. Tamer sees that reforms in the education system for the deaf are perhaps best achieved through more appropriate preparation of teachers to teach deaf children. He and his team are running their first classes for hearing instructors, an effort he plans to introduce nationally in the next two years. The classes, conducted by volunteers at Tamer's organization, teach an understanding of deafness as well as sign language. The first class is underway, with 15 men and 15 women students, all hearing. The 18-month course requires participants to pass two exams (administered by deaf and mute scorers), after which successful students will receive a certificate allowing them to teach deaf and hearing students. At completion of the first class, Tamer plans to approach the national governmental body responsible for adult literacy, the Agency for Adult Literacy Education, to advocate for the adoption of his course by existing literacy centers nationwide. In this way, Tamer hopes to improve education dramatically for deaf students by providing a cadre of specialized instructors who are trained to teach them. These people will also be available as interpreters for deaf people in court cases and for other public appearances.
Tamer also helps deaf people in Egypt access medical aids and other devices like special alarm clocks that allow deaf people to lead normal lives in a hearing world. These technologies are available in more developed countries, but they are not known or produced here. He has asked the Egyptian government to reduce tariffs on these imported devices, so far with no success, but he remains confident that he will succeed eventually. In the future, he will work with doctors and legislators to ensure that aids and devices are available and affordable to deaf people.

La persona

Tamer grew up in Cairo. For the first 18 months of his life, he was able to hear sounds and he began to experiment, as babies do, with the beginnings of spoken language. But human error–a doctor's prescription of the wrong drug–caused him to lose his hearing. Fortunately, Tamer's family was supportive; they loved him, believed in him, and while not wealthy, found tutors to help him learn to read and write. He attended a government-run school for the deaf, an experience he found utterly frustrating. He spent years of his life sitting in the classroom, learning absolutely nothing.
His formal education came to an end, as it did for all deaf teenagers, in ninth grade. At 17, he took a job as a construction worker, an acceptable vocation for a deaf and mute person. But guided by his mother, he discovered adult education and enrolled in evening classes. He was the only teenager in a class of 50-year-olds and the only deaf student. To succeed in the two-year program, he wrote notes to classmates, asking them to let him borrow their notes. After each class, he gathered and studied the collection of notes, searching for points he had missed from reading the teacher's lips. He graduated at the top of his class, and his marks were ranked third highest nationally out of a hundred or more schools intended for hearing people. He pushed on, applying to the College of Applied Arts, an unprecedented move for a deaf person.
Initially, his admission was blocked, but he did not give up. He wrote to the Minister of Higher Education and was finally admitted two months after classes had begun. So on top of everything else–a new environment, his enrollment as the only deaf student–he had to quickly catch up. His success at university is remarkable in every aspect and required emotional, as well as intellectual, stamina. Early on, he developed an expertise in drawing and began to coach other students in exchange for their help in the subject areas more difficult for him–chemistry and physics. What began as relationships born of necessity and mutual need evolved into friendships. Classmates began to respect him for his resolve and skill, to summarize their notes just for him. Tamer remembers that at one point, a professor refused to believe that the homework assignment he had turned in–a perfect drawing–was the work of a deaf student and accused him of having cheated. But his classmates stepped in, attesting to his work and saving him from expulsion.
Tamer is one of three deaf Egyptians to have attended university, and the first and only graduate of a university program. He graduated in 1990, having earned high marks in interior structures, his area of specialty. Had he been able to hear, he would have been invited to join the teaching faculty. As it was, he took a job designing the interior structures of buildings for a petroleum company, where he became adept at graphic design using computers.
In the mid-1990s, Tamer began to turn his attention to the issue of rights for the deaf and mute. He and several friends gathered in coffee shops to discuss, via signing, possible approaches to learning. They began to gather parents of deaf children they knew to offer counsel and information. This exposure to the broader community of deaf and mute people began to focus Tamer's attention on the problem of illiteracy in particular. The numbers of interested people grew, and Tamer realized that they needed to rent a space to continue their discussions, a safe haven for many members of this growing community. They decided to pool resources and in 1997 registered as an association and secured a flat.
Tamer lives in Cairo with his wife, who is also deaf, and their two hearing daughters.