Andrew Miller, Optometry Lead, Focus Birmingham, on his remarkable journey to Jordan to teach low vision assessments to students.
"I work as the lead optometrist for Focus Birmingham, a local charity based in the West Midlands. I lead a team of professionals delivering reablement services for visually impaired people in Birmingham. One Friday at work an email arrived from Krister Inde entitled “Mission for Vision in Jordan”.
I had met Krister 12 months earlier when he gave an inspiring talk at a meeting hosted by the Macular Society to stimulate the development of visual training services in the UK.
Krister is blind and has been teaching and delivering courses in visual training for many years. I can remember being enthused by his passionate and amusing speech, telling us of the services that had been developed in Sweden. We spoke briefly after his talk, but I remember our conversation was based on the merits of Swedish football rather than visual impairment. However, I felt the need to write to Krister to tell him how inspirational his speech was.
Krister’s email told me about another project which was developing vision rehabilitation services in Jordan. He explained that he wanted an optometrist to go and teach local Jordanian students the basics of low vision assessments.
Jordan is boarded to the North by Syria, to the West by Israel and Palestine and to the East by Iraq. I am not a seasoned traveller and remember my initial thoughts of a project in the Middle East focused on my safety issues and wondering if Krister had any plans to run a similar course in the Bahamas!
After a short exchange of emails and a little persuasion, I was on a plane to Amman, the capital of Jordan.
On arrival, I discovered a country very dissimilar to the UK; the land is dry and arid, the houses uniformly white and the traffic is the most horrendous I have ever encountered.
Road markings appear to be there as merely an option to be followed by the tourists or the ignorant. Despite these cosmetic differences, I was greeted everywhere with nothing but kindness and friendship
The Vision Rehabilitation course is based at the German Jordanian University (GJU) in Amman. The course is led by a French Canadian, Dr Nathalie Busieres.
Busieres was shocked by the lack of low vision services available in Jordan. The existing local service provision treated all children as if they were blind, regardless of their levels of visual impairment. This prompted her to develop a course to train Jordanians about the potential for rehabilitation services for people with low vision.
The course was run from a small cramped office which was shared with the University’s Chemistry department. The office was teaming with books and files and had a constant stream of staff playing “musical chairs” in the limited space.
I did however manage to make room and run a low vision assessment for a diabetic lady in the middle of the office. The space was made even more cramped by the watching students, family and a group of bemused chemists working in the adjoining laboratory.
Despite the chaos, it was none the less rewarding for me and my service user when she delighted in reading her appointment letter with her new spectacle magnifiers.
Teaching programmes at GJU are divided into two courses; a diploma and a masters programme. The diploma is aimed at improving the knowledge and practice of staff working with people with visual impairment and the masters is aimed at optometrists and health professionals looking to establish low vision services.
The masters programme is taught in English with the Diploma programme being translated into Arabic as I teach. I am always struck by the enthusiasm of the students to learn. The only breaks in a three hour session are for prayer and very strong Arabic coffee.
Not content with developing the course and training program, Busieres also arranged for a local building to be converted into a visual training centre. The centre opened in 2012 and has offices, two classrooms, a waiting area with CCTV and a teaching optometry room. The optometry room is equipped with a side room where fellow students and the patient’s family can watch the examinations. The centre now runs low vision clinics on two days a week and has recently seen its 200th patient.
The next phase of development is to extend the program to other students in the Palestinian West Bank and allow students to travel and learn from established services in the European Union.
To finance this further development, funding has been agreed from the EU TEMPUS program. The TEMPUS programme has allowed us to form a consortium with other teaching organisations and charities across Europe.
Through this, it is hoped that Focus Birmingham will form stronger links with the partner organisations as well as sharing of good practice between the EU and the Middle East. This work will also allow us to develop a training resource and website for use in encouraging and establishing new low vision services in the Middle East and Africa.
I have now travelled to Jordan on three occasions to teach the students at GJU. I find that the more I go to teach, the more I learn. I have been lucky enough to travel and see Petra and Jerusalem as well as seeing the amazing views of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights at Um Qays.
My Arabic is limited to a pitiful few words but I am still bowled over by the warmth and generosity of the people there. I am immensely proud to be part of Nathalie’s “flying faculty” and in the future I hope to continue my links with the department."