Sadam Ahmed was two and a half the last time he saw a tree, or looked at the sky. Then darkness.
But he still aims for the moon.
Born into a refugee camp in Somalia, Sadam was dealt a difficult hand from day one. His world was scarred by violence and persecution.
Sadam fell ill. His mother carried him for days, but he slipped into a coma that lasted two years. When he awoke the doctors believed it was a miracle; Sadam however had been robbed of his sight.
Given that hand many players would have folded. Not Sadam.
“I had two choices – go into the darkness or fight it,” he says. It was a stark choice – but as his mother told him; “If you reach for the sky you may reach the moon.”
The family’s luck shifted when Australia accepted them as Somalian refugees when Sadam was still a child, and they moved to Melbourne. As a blind child, school years were always going to be a challenge. He couldn’t do a lot of what the sighted kids could. He was different.
When he was ten years old he had to make a decision. Was he going to be anchored or “grab the bull by the horns” and carve out a rich and fulfilled life?
Sadam’s not someone easily anchored, he’s highly articulate, determined and very smart. He also had the support of family and friends, particularly his mother who believed he didn’t need to be defined by his blindness. Clearly any bulls with horns were at risk.
“I’ve never been someone who gives up,” he says, though he acknowledges that “When I was younger there was a lot of pent up anger that I am differently abled.”
In the background however his mother continually encouraged him, always reminding Sadam that; “Even if you want to give up, things could be a lot worse than being blind.”
While he might not have been able to match his sighted school friends in everything they did (though he probably had a head start in pinning the tail on the donkey at birthday parties) what Sadam could do and do well was learn. Aided by a Perkins Brailler Sadam graduated primary then high school. Now the Perkins Brailler was a major breakthrough for blind people when it was invented back in 1951 – but it remained a fairly heavy braille typewriter – it wasn’t something you could just slip in a satchel.
Fast forward 16 years though and both assistive technology and Sadam have moved on.
He’s now 24 and studying international business at RMIT with ambitions to eventually secure an MBA. Meanwhile the technology he has access to today is entirely portable, it connects to the internet, it has intelligent interfaces that allow for text-to-speech and braille output.
Sadam’s blog features prominently a quote from Arthur C. Clarke that notes; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The magic for Sadam is having equal access to the digital world which he shares with his sighted friends and family.
When an email arrives Cortana alerts him; Humanware’s Braillenote Touch lets him write up notes during lectures; he wirelessly transfers these to his Surface Book; Windows 10 converts them to the file format that allows JAWS (Job Access With Speech) to read the text to him; and, like every other student he can print or email assignments for his tutors.
The magic of technology means; “I’m on Instagram, read emails, pay bills, use social media, I Skype, update my blog and have YouTube – I’m in touch with friends and family.” A speech overlay or screen reader means Sadam is a fully fledged participant in the digital world. No barriers.
As a committed volunteer with Vision Australia he also works with other blind people to explain what technology options exist, how to access them to become full digital-world citizens, and also to help break down the barriers between blind and sighted people – particularly within Australia’s Somalian community. It means there’s more understanding and empathy on both sides of the fence – and in time technology may allow the fence to be demolished entirely.
Already it’s been his ally on a journey from poverty and darkness to freedom and true empowerment.
Sadam says that what has really transformed his life is Windows 10, Microsoft Surface and tools such as Cortana that are equally accessible to blind and sighted people. He says that Microsoft’s long held intent to develop technology that makes people as productive as they can be rings true for people of all abilities.
“Windows 10 for me is my eyes. In the figurative sense and also in a literal sense,” says Sadam. It’s allowed him to secure a diploma and study for a degree at RMIT. “It’s an empowering operating system, a gateway to creativity and it puts the world at my fingertips.
“I can’t put a price on how much it’s helped me in my life.”