BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei’s blind community wants to set up a job training centre for the visually-impaired, in a bid to improve the employment rate of blind people.

According to statistics from the Brunei Darussalam National Association of the Blind (BDNAB), just 10 people with blindness or visual impairment have found full-time employment, usually as special needs teachers or phone operators. 

President of the BDNAB, Muhammad Hamzi Omar, said there needs to be greater focus on inclusive education and a change in employers’ mindsets about the capabilities of people with visual impairment. 

“[They] can be productive members of the working force if they are provided with proper training and given the opportunity to familiarise themselves with their place of work,”  he said on the sidelines of an event to mark World Braille Day, which is observed on January 4.

“Education and employment opportunities have important social impact on the lives of the blind.” 

Blind association President Muhammad Hamzi Omar (C) shows samples of braille textbooks to the Ministry of Health’s permanent secretary, Dr Hj Zulaidi Hj Abd Latif (L), during a World Braille Day event on January 5, 2019. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Employment opportunities for people with disabilities is hard to come by, with a paltry 56 out of 9,282 in full-time employment, according to government data

However, more NGOs have started to create their own vocational training programmes, although the emphasis so far has been people with autism.

The blind association also has plans to run education and job training programmes at its new permanent facility in Rimba, after a government land grant was given, but the NGO is still seeking funding to build the facility.

Muhammad Hamzi said BDNAB’s current centre at Plaza Athirah is not designed to be inclusive and accessible to people with special needs, and lacks features such as tactile pathways and braille maps.

A new training centre would also help visually-impaired youth learn how to become independent, manage their daily lives, and learn how to read basic braille.

‘Blind students lag behind in literacy’

The BDNAB said providing inclusive education is also key to giving visually-impaired people the same opportunities as their sighted counterparts, but blind students tend to lag behind in literacy development due to the lack of availability of braille textbooks and reading materials.

According to the government’s Special Education Unit (UPK), there are 154 students with blindness or visual impairment studying from the primary to the tertiary level. 

“It is difficult to get an average number of students because some students are not registered under UPK. It is only when they are about to sit for the big exams like ‘O’ levels that they will come to us [for assistance],” said Hj Roslan Hj Zulkifli, head of the Visual Impairment Unit under UPK. 

He urged parents who suspect their children may have visual impairment to seek medical attention and not be ashamed or embarrassed to let them learn braille.

A social enterprise launched under the BDNAB, called the Braille Book Company, has been producing braille textbooks for the Special Education Unit since 2017. 

The Braille Book Company, a social enterprise under the Brunei Darussalam National Association of the Blind, aims to produce braille textbooks for visually-impaired students. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

So far the company has converted Year 7 and Year 8 textbooks into braille, which have been distributed to visually-impaired students in schools.

“We are still [editing] the textbooks for Year 9, Year 10 and Year 11. We also recently received textbooks for primary school, and we are currently in the process of retyping it,” said Muhammad Hamzi.

The process is incredibly labour intensive — it requires hours of retyping textbooks into Microsoft Word, then uploading the file to Duxbury software where it will be converted into braille.

Because of its time consuming nature, BDNAB has engaged volunteers to accelerate the production of braille textbooks.

The association has held a “Braillethon” three times so far, where volunteers gather to re-type books which can then be converted into braille. 

The BDNAB president said Braillethon 4.0 is slated for February this year, targeting 100 volunteers to help them speed up the production process.