About Zuhair

Born totally blind as the first child of a poor couple in Amman Jordan, one can say that Zuhair’s birth broke his poor mother’s heart!  With few resources and scarce knowledge about blindness, Zuhair’s parents did not know what to do.  To them, the joy brought about by a new child, a first child, was destroyed forever, and a journey into the unknown began. “My mother wasn’t sure what to do with me”, Zuhair Mahmoud tells.  “She had a lot of questions such as, what is he going to do when he grows up?  Is he going to be able to take care of himself and his parents?  Is he ever going to have a normal life just like everyone else?”   Zuhair’s birth, however, was the start of a very interesting life, one full of adventures, happiness, sadness, laughter and tears.  Not only did he grow up to be a normal person, but Zuhair’s accomplishments touched the lives of many people around the world, blind and sighted alike.   Zuhair’s childhood was, to say the least, unusually normal.  He did not let his disability prevent him from doing the things that children did back then.  “We lived in a poor part of Amman.  I remember there were a bunch of us, my parents and my siblings, living in a two bedroom house.  We would lay some matrices on the floor at night and sleep next to each other (there were eight of us kids), and during the day, we would play with the other kids in the street.  It was like a jungle out there — you had to fend for yourself.  If you appear week, the other kids would bully you and you will be stigmatized and ostracized forever.   Being blind, I recognized my disadvantage early on, and sought to minimize the problems it would cause me.  I would run with the other kids, play hide and seek, and do things just like they do so as not to appear different.  I had no cane, no mobility aids, just my sense of direction and my knowledge of the layout of the neighborhood.  If anyone messed with me, I’d get back at them, even if they run away and hide.  I had a good memory which stored everything that happened to me, and when pay back time came, I was quite generous!”   In 1979, Zuhair joined the school for the blind in Amman Jordan, where he completed his elementary and junior high education.  “It was an interesting period.  We were given Braille books with which to study, and that’s about it.  They never taught us daily living skills, mobility, nothing, it was just Braille and the curriculum of the Ministry Of Education.”   Ever since childhood, Zuhair recognized that he wasn’t just like everyone else.  “At the school for the blind, we used to play and frolic as little children, and we also used to talk about what life would be like for us when we grow up.  I remember saying to my friends that I wanted to do something big.  I wanted to be an engineer, a computer programmer.  I remember how some of the kids used to laugh at me, telling me that blind people couldn’t be engineers or computer programmers.  I remember once how I got mad at them and went and asked one of my teachers, who himself was blind, whether what they were telling me was true.  I still remember to this day the manner in which he replied to me.  He did not want to break my heart and discourage me, but at the same time he did not want to get my hopes up too high.  He basically told me that I shouldn’t worry about this for now and that I should concentrate on my studies.”   Upon graduation from the school for the blind, Zuhair found out that what his friends used to tell him was not very far from the truth, at least as far as his society was concerned.  When he joined the local high school, Zuhair was told that he couldn’t study math and science because he was blind.  “I remember going to the ministry of education and arguing with the district director for our area who threw me out of his office.  Blind people, as far as he was concerned, were lucky to be let into school, let alone be taught math and science.”   In 1990, and after a long struggle, Zuhair headed for the United States at the age of 17 to pursue his dream of learning computers.  He finished his senior year of high school at Chelmsford High in Chelmsford Massachusetts, where he took three years of math and science in one punishing year.  “I used to wake up at six o’clock, get dressed, go to school, come back, eat dinner and hit the books until at least twelve or one AM.  On week ends, while kids went out and did fun things, I’d sit home and study.  I don’t think I ever studied in my life as much as I studied that year.  I was determined, I had a goal, and I was dead set on achieving it!”   Zuhair briefly went back to Jordan after that year where he tried to obtain funding to continue his college education in the United States.  Unfortunately, no funding could be secured, and he was left only with an offer from a colleague which he met in Massachusetts.  The gentleman in question took up a job in Ft. Lauderdale in Florida as the director of the lighthouse for the blind, and he offered to pay Zuhair’s tuition and fees if Zuhair volunteered some hours teaching Braille to the lighthouse’s clients.  With nothing in sight, Zuhair headed back to the United States in May of 1991.   What started out as a few hours developed into a full time job with no pay.  “after a few months, it was obvious that the guy wasn’t going to pay me.  I was putting in sixteen hour days and working week ends, but each and every time I inquired about when I could start school, I was rebuffed with one excuse or another.  This continued until one day, when I was too sick to go to work, I was physically attacked.  I knew that I had to do something.  I left that same day, and not knowing where to go, I headed for the nearest mosque where I stayed for a few weeks.  Not knowing what was next for me, and with kidney stones making their debut appearance in my life, everyone who saw me had only one advice for me, and that is to go home.  Where it not for the intervention of some wonderful people in the National Federation Of The Blind, I would have gone home, as I had nowhere else to go!”   Despite his calamity, Zuhair started school at Florida Atlantic University in early 1993, with the board of directors of the lighthouse paying for his tuition only for that semester.  “I knew I was ok for the spring semester, but I had know idea what was to happen after that”.   In the summer of 1993, Zuhair won a $2,500 National Federation of The Blind scholarship, after being selected among the best 26 blind students of 1993.  “I never saw the money, because by the time it was dispersed, my fall tuition was due.  I had the NFB send the check directly to the school, and I was left with a $900 balance to pay!”   While in college, Zuhair used a combination of hard work and belt tightening to get him through.  “I used to eat on $20 a month.  I’d buy four quarters of chicken, a bag of potatoes and frozen vegetables.  Every night it was frozen vegetables and potatoes except for Friday, when I used to celebrate and cook one of the four chicken quarters.  Needless to say I was pretty thin at the time, but it didn’t matter, because I was doing what I wanted to do, and that is to study and learn about computers!”   In 1994, Zuhair moved to Colorado where he got a job at the Colorado Center For The Blind.  He taught computers and communication skills, serving as both an instructor and a role model to would be blind college students.  “I fell in love with Colorado on the first day I got there.  I knew this was the place I wanted to call home, and call it home I did.  After finishing the summer with the CCB, I was offered a job with a small company which customized and sold computers for people who are blind.  This company was Beyond Sight, and it is one of the largest resellers of adaptive technology in the United States.  My work at Beyond Sight exposed me to all kinds of hardware, software and other adaptive technology devices which made the lives of blind people easier.  Having that knowledge, as well as what I was learning in school about mainstream computer systems prepared me for an exciting career!”   In 1997, Zuhair left Beyond Sight and worked at Teletech for six months.  “I wanted to leave the adaptive technology sector for a while to work in the mainstream market.  I helped GTE customers with their internet problems, and no one ever knew that I was blind.”   Zuhair then went on to join IBM, where he worked for IBM global services for a couple of years supporting the Lucent Technologies project.  In 1998, Zuhair formally launched ZM Consulting, where he put the combination of his knowledge of mainstream market systems and his knowledge of adaptive technology to work helping other blind and visually impaired persons.  “My focus was the business market.  Often times someone will get a job, and their employer has no idea how to accommodate them.  My role would be to go in, understand the company’s systems, recommend the technology that will work for the employee, install and customize it, learn the job and teach it to the blind or visually impaired employee in a manner consistent with access technology.”   With this extremely scarce skill, Zuhair helped many people working for companies large and small start, maintain and keep their jobs, pay their taxes, and live as productive members of their society.   In early 2001, Zuhair went in pursuit of yet another dream, one which was dormant in the back of his mind for a long time.  “I have come to appreciate how much difference technology makes in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired.  With a talking computer, one can browse the Internet, communicate via email, conduct research and write and compile documents.  With a scanner, a blind person can read printed material, not needing to rely on a sighted person to do that work any longer.  I remembered those I went to school with in Jordan, some of whom were smarter than I am, and wondered what would they do if they had access to that technology!”   Zuhair’s task was to make the technology he used for years in the United States available to his compatriots.  Working with Dolphin and other European companies, Zuhair managed to release the first true screen reader in Arabic, thus breaking the technology barrier which stood in the way of Arabic speaking blind persons for years.  “Though it was a financial disaster for me, I am proudest of this achievement.  When I look back at it, I know that I have achieved my dream of having left my mark on the world around me, and knowing that I have helped so many people excel and be the best they can be.”   Zuhair returned to the United States on January first, 2004, where he returned to his consulting business, and later applied for citizenship.   After his five year legal battle with the US Government, Zuhair went on to work for the Library of Congress as an Information Technology Specialist.   He currently lives with his wife in Arlington Virginia, just outside of Washington DC.