Visually impaired radio presenter Gada Zelmet (R) and a guest (L) are seen during a radio program at Shams radio station in Gaza City, January 9, 2020. (Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A Glimmer of Hope for Gaza’s Visually Impaired

A station with a mission: Shams radio aims to help the blind build better lives

Shams, the Gaza Strip’s first radio station for the blind, has commenced full operations, providing a much-needed service for an extremely marginalized segment of society.

Amro Alhaj, the station’s chief coordinator, told The Media Line the idea was “to defend the rights of persons with visual disabilities, give them the essentials of media training, and spread awareness of the importance of this sector by showing people what they can do.”

Shams (“Sun”) radio was founded by the Association of Visually Impaired Graduates, with funding from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, commonly known as the Kuwait Fund.

After nearly two months of experimental operations starting in November 2019, the station, based in central Gaza, is broadcasting via Facebook, joining 23 other radio outlets based in the Strip.

Shams’ offerings run the gamut, with programs on social, educational and personal rights subjects transmitted almost six hours a day, Alhaj said.

Eight volunteers, half of them blind, use limited resources and basic equipment to produce professional-level programs.

Behind the microphone, a confident young woman with a soothing voice reads the weather forecast from a Braille-printed paper as if she has been doing it for years. Meet Warda Alshanti, a volunteer broadcaster and program producer at Shams radio station and a presenter at Palestine TV.

Alshanti, who was diagnosed in 2002 with a rare type of retinal fibrosis, describes her experience working at Shams radio as “successful,” despite the many barriers.

“To be honest, it’s not easy at all for people with disabilities to be media professionals who convey a message to society. … We have tried to focus on raising public awareness of [the efficiency of] people with disabilities. … I think we managed to do it successfully,” she told The Media Line.

For Alshanti, it’s a double victory over injustice, against the barriers that the disabled and the women in the Gaza Strip face.

She explained: “Women in Palestinian society in general are subjected to serious forms of discrimination. Traditions are used to deprive women of the ability to work, whether they are disabled or not.

“Today,” Alshanti continued, “we have advanced to a stage where the community has started to accept the idea of women working in different fields.”

Still, the crew at Shams is significantly challenged.

Alhaj said, “The shortage of funding and of staff” precludes moving forward to new prospects such as longer broadcast hours and FM radio transmission rather than Facebook only.

Alshanti added: “Presenting and preparing programs require a special computer and assistive devices for the disabled, be they for Braille or speech-generating devices, which are not available to us.”

Nevertheless, the station has met with great encouragement from audiences.

“In presenting my morning program, I was surprised by the enormous number of listeners, from both inside and outside Gaza, who are not disabled,” Alshanti said.

One of Shams’ faithful female listeners, Somayya Jaber, is a teacher with a visual disability. She told The Media Line that she very much appreciates the station and its rich content. “It represents the community of disabled persons well and meets their needs,” Jaber said.

Abdul Aziz Abusha’ban, who is also a listener and a teacher with a visual disability, agreed, telling The Media Line that “Shams’ programs highlight success stories of people with disabilities.”

He also expressed admiration for the Shams’ support and defense of Forsan Alerada, another local radio station for people with disabilities, which financially collapsed and had to lay off most of its workers.

Forsan Alerada, established in 2006 and long the only radio station in Gaza for persons with disabilities, has been encountering serious difficulties since UNRWA terminated the contracts of 24 journalists there last year.

For Gaza’s disabled, such incidents, which reflect the insecurity and the harsh reality they face every day, are massive blows to their hopes of social integration and of living decent lives.

Nader Basheer, the CEO of the Association of Visually Impaired Graduates, told The Media Line that people with disabilities in the Gaza Strip suffer from “a compound crisis” at several levels.

“The siege in place, which imposes an economic burden on the Strip, directly affects disabled persons in multiple ways: the lack of job opportunities, the shortage of projects serving that segment, and the shortage of special equipment,” he said.

Basheer said Israeli actions, “direct and indirect targeting,” has deepened the already profound crisis.

“Then,” he continued, “there is the Palestinian internal division, which directly causes the disabled suffering. … Public facilities in the Gaza Strip are not properly adapted for people with visual disabilities.”

Looking forward, Basheer hailed all efforts at integrating people with disabilities into society. He called for enforcement of Palestinian laws meant to protect all citizens’ rights, “especially Law No. 4 of 1999 [the Law on the Rights of the Disabled], most of whose provisions are not being applied.”

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 255,224 persons with disabilities in Palestine in 2017. Surprisingly, more than half were in the Gaza Strip, including more than 15,000 persons with visual disabilities.

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