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Blind people locked out of post-graduate study by discriminatory exam system

By Zhelwan Z. Wali 10/6/2018
Shivan Abdulkarim finished his bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Sulaimani’s School of Language and Social Science in 2015. Photo courtesy of Abdulkarim
Shivan Abdulkarim finished his bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Sulaimani’s School of Language and Social Science in 2015. Photo courtesy of Abdulkarim
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A talented Kurdish man who had pinned his hopes on studying for a master’s degree has had his dreams left in tatters because university exam authorities cannot cater for his disability.

Shivan Abdulkarim, 29, is blind. He has applied to study at every university in the Kurdistan Region, but none have accepted him because he is unable to complete English language tests. None of the institutions offer the option to take the exam verbally, or provide notes in braille.

“My objective since I finished university has been to study my master’s and God willing a PhD later. But when I wanted to apply for my MA, they impeded me,” Abdulkarim said.

All candidates must have completed International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exams, he was told.

“The blind cannot take IELTS exams because there is not a single material to help us take the exam,” Abdulkarim said.

The only way a blind person can access a master’s program is with the special consent of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Abdulkarim was told. “Our case is very unique and quite different from other people with special needs,” he said.

However, the KRG ministry for higher education has left him disappointed.

“They told me there is no alternative they could offer me, nor could they remove the English language requirement,” he said.

Abdulkarim finished his bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Sulaimani’s School of Language and Social Science in 2015.

Both government and private universities have the same set of requirements preventing the blind from taking post-graduate study.

Abdulkarim slammed the higher education ministry. “There is not a single, even a single mention of the blind, not giving us any special status or at least grant us a seat at the universities,” he said.

Having lost hope in gaining a post-graduate place in the Kurdistan Region, Abdulkarim turned to Baghdad.

According to Iraqi law, government universities grant three seats each year to candidates who are not required to prove their proficiency in English and computing. One of these is for the generation of martyrs, one for political prisoners, and one for people with special needs.

“So according to the law, the blind studies are even for free,” he said. “So I wanted to study there after I filled out the application online. I was ready to face any difficulties and risk my life in Baghdad just to fulfill my dreams.”

The KRG once again stood in Abdulkarim’s way.

“After I finished my application form, I visited the KRG Social Affairs Ministry – Sulaimani Department’s Directorate of People with Special Needs Care. The admin of the department had to sign my application form to prove that I am a disabled person and live in Sulaimani. He said ‘I do not sign it for you because we have our own government and that I am not authorized to sign and if I do, I will be punished by the KRG,’ so he did not do it and destroyed again my future,” said Abdulkarim.

Rudaw English contacted officials at the KRG Higher Education Ministry multiple times, but they were not available for comment.

Successful case

Jegir Nadhim, a lecturer at the University of Kurdistan-Helwer (UKH), says he is the only blind lecturer in the Kurdistan Region and had faced similar obstacles. He, thus, decided to fulfill his dreams abroad.

When he applied to study for his master’s degree in the Kurdistan Region, he took only the speaking parts of the IELTS exam, not the listening, writing, and reading sections. The Higher Education Ministry said it did not “have the facilities” to provide for him.

“Unfortunately, I am the only blind university lecturer in Kurdistan. I say unfortunately because I know that other talented blind individuals can have an enormous impact on the development of higher education in Kurdistan and they should be given a chance to contribute,” Nadhim said.

“The first [thing the KRG must do is] remove barriers and provide the special tools that a blind student would need to finish his/her studies, such as screen-reading software, and provide accessible study materials. The second is to change the policies that discriminate against the blind students and put severe limitations on what they can or cannot study,” Nadhim told Rudaw English.

Nadhim called the ministry’s demand for blind students to take IELTS exams “irrational.”

He condemned “the inflexibility of the ministry of higher education and its irrational insistence on the IELTS test for blind applicants even in the face of overwhelming evidence for the impossibility of taking the test by the blind students.”

The KRG should replicate methods used in the UK and US to test the English language proficiency of blind people, he said.

“The ministry should make another alternative available such as testing the English language ability of blind applicants by forming its own special exam committee as is the case with most English speaking universities in the UK and US,” he said.

On granting a seat to the blind, as is the case in Iraq, Nadhim said he is against the idea, as it creates discrimination.

“I am against this as a concept because this will be discrimination and any discrimination whether positive or negative is not going to be beneficial for the blind especially if codified,” he said. “This might have been good in the 1920s as blind literacy was in its infancy and this law will have encouraged blind students to pursue a degree in higher education, but modern laws should promote equal opportunity for the disabled and the blind instead.”

“If it were up to the former minister of higher education in Kurdistan, I [would] have never been allowed to go on an HCDP [Human Capacity Development Program in Higher Education] scholarship as his Excellency was of the view that I would be wasting the government’s money and will not be able to get the degree in law, but I disappointed him by becoming the best student.”

According to the KRG Higher Education Ministry: “HCDP is an ambitious program that aims to develop human capacities in Kurdistan Region in the field of higher education. An annual KRG budget of one hundred and twenty billion dinars (US$100 million) is allocated to the scheme. It provides a fair opportunity for thousands of distinguished young men and women to continue their education in internationally renowned universities.”

Addressing blind students, Nadhim said: “My advice to them is to never give up since rights are obtained not given and prove to yourself and society that you deserve to be given equal opportunity.”

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