Face to Face – Maha Zouwayhed
by MainGate Staff
Maha Zouwayhed, Zein AUB iPark associate director and accessibility advocate, is a master at helping AUB departments reframe how they do their work, not so they can do more, but rather so they can make their current work more inclusive. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the Lebanese population lives with some form of disability, according to a report by UK-based research center K4D. Unfortunately, like many developing countries, this population is underserved in Lebanon, facing barriers to many resources, such as education, public space, and comprehensive health care. These barriers have only been exacerbated by the economic deterioration and global pandemic. Zouwayhed is undeterred by these structural barriers. “So many of the barriers to solutions come from people’s assumptions that accessibility is complicated, expensive, and will create extra work, but the truth is that it just requires a different way of doing things that we are already doing.”
Maha was not always in the field of disability rights and accessibility. Growing up in Beirut, her family was, like many other families, severely impacted by the Lebanese Civil War and lost much due to the currency devaluation during that time. Being the third of three children, college affordability was difficult. Yet, she was undeterred, a theme that runs through much of her life. It is no surprise then that she would be unstoppable when she set her sights on AUB for her MBA. “I needed to take a loan, but no banks would lend me the money. I went to every bank I knew, and one day while grocery shopping in Aley, I saw a bank across the street and convinced the clerk to let me speak to the manager. After much back and forth, he eventually relented, and I was able to attend AUB with that loan.”
Maha would work in the private sector for over a decade before the opportunity to return to AUB would arise. Starting in the Office of Information and Technology, she quickly noticed gaps in the way students with disabilities were being served. Gaps she could see because of her familiarity with accessibility issues. “My friend’s child reached university age, but because of his disability, there were no resources or services for him to attend university. Whereas I saw my cousin’s child with learning disabilities go to school in the United Kingdom and was able to complete a university degree. This burrowed into my mind that with the right system and access, my friend’s child in Lebanon, like other children in Lebanon, could succeed.” From the intimate knowledge of this injustice, she knew AUB students and prospective students could be better served at AUB and thus was born ABLE. Accessibility for a Bolder Learning Experience (ABLE) is the culmination of Maha’s work to bring accessibility to all students at AUB. Its highest aim is to open the doors of higher education for all through digital accessibility. ABLE has helped connect special needs students with the AUB administration to support enrollment and fostered three innovative student-led projects: an automated braille encoder, a campus accessibility navigation guide, and an accessibility web engine.
“If there is something we could do to change one person’s future, one child, it is all worth it.” With this, Maha, along with students and other advocates at AUB, are bringing accessibility to the forefront at AUB and Lebanon. Her determination has been crucial to this success, and though there is still far to go, she carries with her the determination and unwavering spirit that she had as a young woman to fight for what she needed. “It’s a journey, and yes, the journey may be thousands of miles before we arrive at full accessibility for all, but if you can do things even just one percent better, why stand in place?”