Sheikha lets her art do the talking

For some who are born without one of the senses, like Sheikha Al Shamsi, being deaf is about exploring life with her eyes and hands.

Emirati artist Sheikha Al Shamsi, who was born deaf, with one of her works outside her home in Al Rashidiya, Dubai. She has ambitions to become a professional. Sarah Dea / The National
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Sheikha Al Shamsi is completely immersed in her latest manga drawing – a cartoon creature whose large brown eyes, long brown hair and shy smile make it look very much like its creator.

People passing her stand at the comic fair stop to admire her collection of Japanese-style manga and anime characters, which include her trademark mischievous kitten on badges, bags, T-shirts and posters. Some of them try to ask her the price.

What they fail to see is the handwritten sign on the whiteboard next to the young artist.

“Hello! I can’t hear so it is a bit difficult for me to communicate, so please be patient with me,” it reads.

Sheikha was born deaf but refuses to let it stop her living life to the full. At the age of 11 she discovered a talent for cartoon characters, sometimes drawn from real life.

Now in her early twenties, her pen also allows her to communicate in other ways, using the white board as her voice.

“I am just a little different than most,” she writes, handing over the board and marker so the conversation can continue.

Sheikha’s disability is hardly noticeable at first, helped by a cochlear implant – a hearing aid that allows her to hear a small amount of sound – that was given to her several years ago, and her ability to read lips.

Smiling and confident, she is more than happy to attend exhibitions and shows such as this year’s Middle East Film and Comic Con on her own.

“I can do it. I don’t need help. When I need help, I will ask for it,” she writes. “I told my family not to sit or stand next to me. I can do it myself.”

Able to speak English and basic Arabic, she also knows American and British sign language and even some Japanese, which she taught herself.

“Japanese cartoons and manga have great depth and imagination. They help me dream and inspire me to create my own worlds,” Sheikha says.

Her favourite series include Attack on Titan, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh and Fullmetal Alchemist.

As the first deaf student at Zayed University, Sheikha is taking her study of art and animation to the next level.

She likes fantasy, drama and horror genres in Japanese comics and cartoons, and wants to launch her own series soon.

“I want to become a professional and create my own animation. I have many ideas,” Sheikha says.

Her plan is to include characters with challenges such as hearing loss and blindness, and turn them into heroes.

Her university classes often include written material, which makes it easier for her. But the biggest help comes from other students.

“They are very nice,” Sheikha says. “They always turn to me and make sure I have everything I need and help explain further anything I didn’t understand.

“Theory is the most difficult aspect of the classes. I am good at application and creativity.”

It has been a long journey through special-needs education, which in the UAE focuses more on English than in Arabic.

“Arabic is hard for me but I try every day to learn more,” she says. “I prefer to type on computer and on my smartphone when communicating because people are not patient to wait to understand me if I try to speak back.”

Sheikha has already picked up several awards for best art and designs at local exhibitions and competitions, with designs created for Traffic Week and National Day.

She is confident, she says, that her art speaks to people when she cannot.

“I like to make people smile. I like them to dream when they see my art,” she writes.

With three cats, three dogs and three birds as pets, Sheikha’s house is full of life.

“I get inspired by them. They are always active and funny,” she says.

When asked who is her hero and greatest supporter, she writes: “Mother. She is strong and always tells me I can do whatever I want if I truly believe in it and push myself.”

Her mother, Mona Al Mansoori, is an accomplished artist and chairwoman of the Gulf Disability Society, pushing for reform and change that will include those with special needs in society and community.

“I refused to let my child be set aside and not included in everyday activities with other children,” the mother of three girls says in Arabic. Sheikha is her first child.

Mrs Al Mansoori remembers that during a birthday party when Sheikha was a child, the children started playing musical chairs. The other mothers suggested Sheikha might want to skip the game.

“I said. ‘Why? She will catch up and understand what the game is about’. I will not make her sit and watch and not be included.”

After five years as a member of the society, this year Mrs Al Mansoori became the first chairwoman.

“I don’t believe in doing something just halfway,” she says.

“If I want to make a difference and truly push for change, I need to start from the top.”

Her life is busy arranging meetings with top authorities, arguing that those with disabilities should have more of an active role and voice in society.

Two months ago Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, issued a law to protect the rights of people with disabilities in the emirate.

The law consolidates cooperation among all relevant bodies in Dubai to provide health care and rehabilitation services to people with special needs.

It also provides them with a level of education on a par with that of their peers, and public services that include the use of roads, public transport, and police and judiciary services to ensure their full integration into society.

This law supports a federal law from 2006, which concerns the rights of people with special needs, seeking to address discrimination against them and provide and promote equal opportunities in health care, employment, sport and education.

Also this year, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, issued a resolution setting up a higher committee to protect the rights of people with special needs.

These initiatives are steps in turning Dubai into a city that fully caters for those with special needs by 2020.

“There are no confirmed figures on the number of special-needs people in the UAE, as some are kept at home and are never registered at any of the special schools or government entities that provide services for them,” says Mrs Al Mansoori.

At a recent conference entitled “Hear my Voice, Empowering the Deaf”, it was stated that there were more than 360 million people worldwide who are born deaf.

When Sheikha was having her cochlear implant at the age of 16, the doctors warned her mother not to expect too much of a miracle.

“But look, she can respond and she does articulate well,” Mrs Al Mansoori says. “I always tell parents to believe in their children, and not to lose hope.

“For the children look up to us to push them and encourage them. If they sense defeat, they behave as defeated.”

Support from Sheikha’s father Ahmed Al Shamsi, who is the first Emirati pilot for Emirates airline, has also helped to shape her into the confident and ambitious artist she has become.

“I want people to give special-needs people a chance. We are creative and we are smart, and we are funny too,” says Sheikha.

“I have lots of dreams and I will accomplish them.”