Qatar is flourishing with women in academia and prolific researchers who publish in highly respectable journals. One of them is Dr. Dena Ahmed Al Thani, an Assistant Professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) who strongly advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities and works to create more inclusive technology. So, who is Dr. Dena Ahmed Al Thani?
I am an Assistant Professor and the Director of Interdisciplinary Programs at the College of Sciences and Engineering at HBKU. In 2004, I finished my bachelor’s degree at Qatar University (QU) in Computer Science. After graduating, I worked as a System Developer and Analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2008, I was awarded a scholarship grant from the Supreme Education Council (formerly) to complete my master’s at the Queen Mary University of London in Software Engineering. After finishing my master’s, I worked at Qtel (currently Ooredoo) as a Senior Manager Portal and Integration Platforms. I was part of the team that built the eShop for Qtel. However, I left my work at Qtel to pursue a Ph.D.. My passion and my plan have always been to pursue a career in academia. Hence, I left my job when I was awarded a grant from Queen Mary University of London to complete my doctoral thesis. As I was doing my thesis, I worked as a Teaching Assistant for the lab courses at the university. In 2016, I received my Ph.D. in Computer Science. I am also an active researcher, and my research interests include inclusive design, accessibility, and designing for eHealth. Along with my research interests, I am a very passionate teacher, and I have always enjoyed teaching others.
How has your journey been so far in education and career?
As I mentioned earlier, my goal has always been to pursue a career in academia, so my other jobs were temporary for me. However, obtaining a Ph.D. is very hard. First, you have to complete the two-year master’s program, and then the Ph.D. program is four years long. Each of these programs will come with its challenges and difficulties. Also, obtaining a Ph.D. doesn’t guarantee a job in academia, but I was fine with the challenges because I always wanted to be a teacher. Although my first passion was to be a teacher, it wasn’t a career choice that my surrounding people and environment encouraged. I even have two sisters who are teachers, and still, they weren’t very encouraging because they saw it as a very demanding job. One must prepare for classes and then give those classes, and there are so many tasks that a teacher needs to do outside the class to be able to give their students the help they need. After graduating from QU, I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but my passion for teaching has always been there. When I joined the master’s program at Queen Mary University of London, I asked my advisor if I could help them teach because I wanted to experience being a teacher, and I fell in love with the profession. To date, I carry that passion in me. It was also my dream to pursue higher degrees beyond a bachelor’s as I have always been an excellent student, and I loved studying and learning, and I remain so. Frankly, I would enjoy doing another Ph.D. if I got the chance! I am grateful that I ended up doing the job that I am most passionate about, as being Dr. Dena and teaching at the university level suits me the most.
Were you always interested in accessibility and inclusion?
I became interested in assistive technology during my time at Queen Mary University of London as a master’s student. One of my professors teaching me at that time was visually impaired, which I didn’t realize until three weeks into the semester because he carried himself just like any other person. Moreover, he was teaching us one of the most complex programming courses, so he grabbed my attention. I wanted to know how he can access technology and how technology accommodates his needs in the workspace. So, I emailed him expressing my interest in those topics, which were his research interests too. And that’s how I started working with him, and he was my supervisor for my master’s and Ph.D.. As an Assistant Professor, I remain passionate about assistive technology and the inclusion of persons with disabilities. For example, I proposed the idea for a course on accessibility for undergraduate students, and it was implemented this semester for the first time. I designed the plan for the course. So, in spring 2022, we offered, at HBKU, a course in Information Communication Technology (ICT) accessibility. Alhamdulillah, the students were very interested in this topic. Since accessibility is one of my main interests, I didn’t find it hard to design a course dedicated to it. Mada Qatar Assistive Technology Center has helped me a lot in finding the right resources for the course. They have their own framework to teach accessibility that I adopted in my teaching. I always collaborate with Mada; I have worked with them as a consultant on many projects. One of the things that the Center aims for is supporting education on inclusion and accessibility, and HBKU has signed agreements with the Center that include designing and offering this course. As a teacher, it is important for me is to encourage my students to broaden their understanding in life. We usually design technology for what we can call typical audiences, but I want my students to go beyond that and find ways in which technology can help in the inclusion of persons with disability. I think it is important to talk about such topics in line with discussions on equality.
Could you tell us more about your doctoral thesis?
My thesis was about the ways we can integrate visually impaired persons in using technology even if the technology was not built to suit them. I did a lot of field visits to working places to observe how visually impaired people work with others. I wanted to see how the workspace treated those people in terms of the tasks they were given and if the work environment understood and appreciated those people’s talents and tried to accommodate their needs to achieve their roles properly. This was the first stage of the thesis; the second stage was that we tried to develop an interface for searching for information, similar to Google Search Engine, except that we built ours to manage information and organize it in a way that helps the visually impaired audiences. The system I built was put in workspaces with visually impaired persons to conduct an observational study on those audiences using it to communicate with their colleagues. I wanted to see if the interface would be helpful in providing a better inclusion of the visually impaired in the workspace. It is important to address the huge gap in technology when it comes to persons with disabilities. Not having the appropriate technologies excludes the visually impaired persons from being as productive as possible because the current technologies were built only for sighted people. When persons with disabilities use those technologies that are not compatible with their needs, it makes them feel frustrated, isolated, and disabled. It is not a shortcoming from their side; it is a shortcoming from the technology itself. A prime example of this might be what we have witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic. With quarantine and restrictions, services were provided online. However, those online sites were not very elderly-friendly, thus, isolating a very large group of society and disabling them. One of the projects I worked on with Mada was to address the digital gap for the older people in the region. We collaborated with the Center for Empowerment and Elderly Care (Ehsan), and Mada and I conducted interviews with 40 elderly Arabs; soon, we will publish our results. Qatar has witnessed an increased interest in accessibility, inclusion, and assistive technology. However, a major difference between what I have witnessed in Qatar and in other countries in regard to those matters is that Qatar lacks the policies that would enforce accessibility and inclusion. While the e- accessibility policy is available since 2011, it is not regulated for all institutes to follow. If this policy implemented, we might see a greater improvement in those efforts, and also, it will encourage interest and research in creating assistive technologies that support Arabic. For example, the programs that the visually impaired persons might use are not Arabic friendly, and it is due to a technical problem that needs to be recognized and addressed, but we cannot do anything without policies that can drive those actions. I have researched and published extensively in this field, and even a Ph.D. student of mine wrote their thesis on the inclusion of the visually impaired in group settings.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
At the beginning of my journey, the biggest challenge was getting funding and a scholarship. The rules might be different now, but in my time, you had to work in a government sector for at least two years to be able to receive funding. Of course, applying for the funding does not guarantee that you will receive it. I tried to receive funding from every place I heard they were offering scholarships. However, alhamdulillah, I received a scholarship for my Ph.D. from Queen Mary University of London. The journey of doing my Ph.D. brought a lot of challenges too. For example, we had three months to prepare a proposal for the thesis, and of course, I struggled to find the topic I wanted to research. The Ph.D. program was a strict one. One has to meet strict deadlines, and a part of completing the program is to publish the research in a renowned publication. When the work gets reviewed for publication, it is done blindly, so the reviewer will judge your work and language, assuming you are a native speaker of English. Also, women face different challenges as they are asked to prove their worth, in Qatar or abroad. Even if the system and policies do not discriminate against women, women might still face challenges because people can still be sexist towards women. Women are asked to prove their worth and that they can make it in competitive fields, something that men might not face. Also, being a Muslim woman studying abroad has its challenges too. Again, even if the system and the policies do not discriminate, it is given that you will receive implicit racist comments abroad. However, I didn’t care about them much, and one should always follow their goals and don’t let such remarks stop them
What is an achievement that you are proud of?
I feel that my biggest achievement is the success of my Ph.D. students and witnessing the moment when they become doctors and publish their research in the most renewed scientific journals. Such moments are the most rewarding moments in my life.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Do the things you like to do, and never let anyone or any event stop you from pursuing your dreams and passions.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.