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Rachel Gadsden in Qatar - disability arts online
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Rachel Gadsden runs a workshop at the Al Noor Institute for the Blind (Shafallah Centre) / 28 March 2013

AL Noor School (Shaffallah Centre) for the Visually Impaired students and staff with Rachel Gadsden. Photo by Tim Hayton

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We have now undertaken two more art workhops here at Katara Culture Village, outside the Artists Studio area of the village. They were attended by young disability and non-disabled students, attending local schools here in Doha. This morning we visit the largest and newly built Al Noor Institute for the Blind (Shafallah Centre) outside the city, organised as a result of a meeting with the determined and personable headmistress Ms Abeer at the festival launch three nights earlier. The institution is grand, well-run and well equipped.

We have now engaged with many students here, as in Bahrain. So it is worthwhile now considering any differences, perceived or otherwise, here in Qatar (over our experiences in the UK).  Well, the first, and most obvious, is one is that here the fathers seem to be far more prepared to make the effort to take the day off work and come with their son or daughter – to a school or outdoor workshop.

Since returning here to Qattar we have been at pains to adhere to tried and tested structures in running the workshops, based sometimes on a ‘body-mapping’ process, and in the case of young people with visual impairment, the creation of a procession-style of painting structured around a series of movement excerises emulating the paralympic sports.

A high degree of supervision is paramount with the blind and visually impaired students. We bring with us a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the ranks of the British Council itself and also students from Doha University to assist with this side of things. We rely also upon teachers at any particular institution to help out too.

The female staff find it more difficult sometimes to engage in a spontaneous workshop of this type or perhaps to embrace its relevance – or sometimes just to paint a picture with the young people for the fun of doing so. Understandably it is more difficult to involve oneself in a painting workshop on the floor when wearing a black abaya robe – and it is easy to underestimate the degree to which the presence of men at the workshops is in itself intimidating.

If we are to continue we must consider from our own point of view the introduction of some form of induction workshops for the teachers too (which in fact had been anticipated here but was unable to be implemented unfortunately), and Rachel certainly hopes to develop a series of all female adult workshops, if at all possible, in the near future, where women would have the opportunity to feel less inhibited in keeping with their social traditions. These objectives had all been considered at the outset, but as this Festival was highlighting family engagement, it was ultimately decided that a broader approach would be engaged in the first instance.

Katara Culture Village is a magnet for holidaymakers and locals, being located at one end of the Corniche on the banks of the Gulf, having a raft of good shops and restaurants and having as a centrepiece of a beautiful Romanesque amphitheatre constructed almost entirely of Travertine marble. Rachel’s exhibition ‘This Breathing World’ is visited each day by up to two hundred people, western visitors and people from all over the Gulf: from Bahrain to Saudi, with almost no-one as far as we know deterred by the expressionist imagery.

This morning, Rachel shows a group of teenage girls who are visually impaired around the show. They are a chatty and happy group. And this surprisingly gives us our first cause to be taken aback; having overheard one of the young girls quite cheerfully voicing the opinion in English that ‘there is no hope for people like us’. Bear in mind, at once, that cliches and shifts of emphasis occur routinely when any non-native speaker engages with a language. And this, I am fairly certain, accounts for the ‘throw-away’ remark.

And Rachel is nothing if not motivational under these circumstances, being significantly visually impaired herself; and rallies the students. Perhaps in this case, too, the slip is a blessing in disguise. The student’s statement serves as a warning; and the message is a clear one.  Any culture or society addressing the issue of disability must confront openly, and head-on, the processes of inclusivity: of overt acceptance and of offering equal opportunity.