Barrier-free access: “Between the world of the sighted and the world of the blind”

19 Feb 2024

Menahil Tahir has severely impaired vision and is one of 9,000 LMU students with serious health conditions and disabilities. To earn her doctorate in social and cultural anthropology, she came from Pakistan to Munich – assisted by a DAAD scholarship.

PhD student Menahil Tahir

Menahil Tahir has been conducting doctoral research at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology for two years. | © Stephan Höck/LMU

Leaving your parental home, home country and native language environment to study abroad is hugely challenging – as German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholar Menahil Tahir found when experiencing many things for the first time at LMU. Yet none of her experiences were bad. “Everything was so nice! It has been so great from the beginning,” she says, looking back.

Upon landing in Munich in September 2021, she was welcomed by two students from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Along with two other students from the Institute, they were her first friends in Munich. The four of them scarcely left her side for the next couple of months, accompanying her on journeys to and from the institute and assisting her with bureaucratic procedures such as citizen registration and residence permit, getting a SIM card, opening a bank account and handling all other paperwork.

Without such practical support, it would have been hard for the 28-year-old to find her bearings. Why? Because the doctoral candidate from Pakistan can hardly see anything. She can make out contours and contrasts, but not always. She sometimes describes herself as "legally blind,” sometimes as “partially sighted”. “I am caught up somewhere between what I call the world of the sighted and the world of the blind,” she explains.

“I have never seen a constellation of stars in the sky”

As a child she learned to read and write. Today, however, she knows that her vision was not good even then: “I have never seen a constellation of stars in the sky – only the brightest star.” As a youngster, it became ever more difficult for her to see in the dark. Within a few years, she was no longer able to read. What remained, however, is a very vivid recollection of letters and numbers, of colors and shapes. To this day, she can still recognize white text on a black background. The prerequisite is that each individual character has to be at least half as big as a smartphone display.

Her poor eyesight has not caused her career to suffer, though. Help has been provided by her family and friends. Initially, her two elder sisters audio-recorded her textbooks for her to let her enjoy the freedom to study when she desired. Additionally, Menahil also studied for high school and university in small groups of friends. “In a collectivist society like Pakistan, it’s the social network around you that really keeps you going,” she affirms.

“If you don’t learn new things, you stagnate”

After completing a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies, she worked for two years at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad – one of the leading universities of Pakistan and also her alma mater. Then, on an impulse – and following the recommendation of a professor who had spent several years in Germany – she applied to the German Academic Exchange Service for a doctoral scholarship. “I really love the university I was at. But I just wanted a change,” she says. “If you don’t learn new things, you stagnate.” When her application was accepted, she seized the opportunity, and set off for “the adventure” without thinking much. To her luck and no surprise at all, she always encountered kind and helpful individuals.

Today, she has long since felt at home in Munich, although she still prefers to go shopping with a friend by her side. Others help her find her way around unfamiliar places. That is important, because even minor changes in her environment are a challenge. She refers to the record-breaking snowfall at the start of December 2023 as an example, which caused the buses to stop a few meters further away at the bus stop. But the tables that suddenly line so many sidewalks in spring are the most recurring considerations. She tries to work out who is sitting, walking or standing where from the voices and sounds she hears. “And yet I still sometimes bump into someone!”

Support at the university

Barrier-free access, quiet room and technical aids

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At the institute, she shares a room in the basement with two other students. She often obtains research literature from LMU’s Office for Disability Services. Here, assistants scan the books that Menahil needs for her research in such a way that they can be read aloud to her by a screen reader. Other services that the team provides for LMU students with health impairments include a quiet room, help in practicing new routes, and laptops that can be loaned out with Braille software and software for the visually impaired. The Philologicum also has a special workspace for visually impaired students.

Research into the performativity of touch

Every two weeks, Menahil also sits in on an advanced social and cultural anthropology seminar. If unaccompanied on the way, she counts the light sources to make sure she goes to the right seminar room. On a Monday shortly before Christmas, she presented a part of her doctoral fieldwork for the first time at this seminar. Her work involved interviewing Afghan nationals who had fled to Pakistan when the Taliban came to power in 2021. Her presentation focused on the question of how she conducted her field research when assimilating information not through the eyesight but using all the senses and harnessing touch as a working tool.

Rather than complaining about difficulties, she stresses the “creative potential” unleashed by her impairment. Again and again, she finds that, precisely because of her diminished vision, it is especially easy to approach other people in the context of field research. “I cannot say that my disability has not helped me to connect with my research partners in the field,” she says with a smile. That is also why she wryly puts the “dis” part of “disabled” in parentheses, emphasizing that ability can be found in every disability. Her confidence in and zest for life helps Menahil rise above every difficult situation. “I go with the flow,” she says with a calm shrug.

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