If you walk into The Pavilion in Downtown Dubai one evening and happen to chance across a 20-strong caffeinated crowd furiously typing away on their laptops, don’t be alarmed – you’re likely to be in the company of volunteers championing a cause called Braille Books for the Blind. The initiative is in support of the Cairo-based Alboraq Charity, an organisation that strives to provide literary services for blind people across the region: the charity uses volunteer man-power to type up much-needed books that can be converted into Braille.
‘There are hundreds of hard-copy books – both in Arabic and English, and sometimes other languages too – which children and adults with visual impairments would love to read,’ says Lola Lopez, founder of Volunteer in Dubai. ‘Our job is to help them be able to do that.’
For the most part, requests for books come from high-school and university students in Egypt. Other requests come from professors who wish to provide their visually-challenged students with study notes and guides in Braille. Petitions are routed through the charity in Cairo, where the contents of the book are scanned and sent to Dubai as PDF files. Once they’re received, a call for arms is posted on the Volunteer in Dubai website and volunteers grab their laptops, meet up and jointly work on typing up an entire book. Once the soft copy of the book has been put together, it’s sent back to Egypt, where it’s converted into Braille and printed.
‘It’s complicated, but we’ve actually been quite lucky,’ says volunteer Rania Mostafa. ‘We usually have a great group of volunteers – they are passionate and dedicated – which makes our job so much easier. However, the task itself is quite difficult because the text is long and we usually have to work to very tight deadlines.’
To ensure each book is completed by the cut-off date, some volunteers end up typing for up to five hours. However, the infectious enthusiasm of the group makes the experience fun and gratifying. The only curmudgeon can be management of whatever Wi-Fi spot the volunteers descend upon. ‘I’d have had to drop this project if it wasn’t for the support of places such as La Brioche in Abu Dhabi and The Pavilion in Dubai,’ says Lopez. ‘It’s very difficult to accommodate such large groups for so many hours at a time.’
But in this age of technological ingenuity, surely there’s some sort of software available to help the process along? ‘Many people have suggested that we use a computer programme that can read the pages and convert them into Word documents, but we’ve found this doesn’t work,’ says Lopez. ‘We end up having to check each page and change a myriad of mistakes and misunderstandings that the computer has made, which actually makes the whole process more difficult.’
It also halves the fun: the events have proved popular with volunteers because they turn out to be great social occasions. ‘Why change something that is working and leaving everyone feeling great about having made a difference in someone’s life?’ says Lopez. Why, indeed.
To participate in the next Braille Books for the Blind event, you must be able to type fairly quickly in either Arabic or English and have a laptop that you can bring to the event. Sign up at www.volunteerindubai.com