People with disabilities in Arab world face struggle

The measures protecting the disabled are rarely implemented and poorly enforced.

Part of society. Disabled people take part in a protest near the government palace in Beirut. (AFP)

2017/04/02 Issue: 100 Page: 12

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Quillen

At the age of 6, Oumayma Gallas lost the ability to walk. She was diagnosed with spinal muscular at­rophy, a rare neuromus­cular disease that inhibits physical mobility and dexterity.

“Since then, the fight has begun,” said Gallas, now 24, who is an out­spoken advocate for the disabled in her native Tunisia.

“People with disabilities suffer from the selfishness of able-bodied persons, such as lawmakers, de­signers and employers, who don’t take the needs of diverse bodies and minds into consideration,” she said.

“It is people like me with disabili­ties who have to spend precious en­ergy on negotiating and navigating lack of access in everyday life.”

Across the Arab world, people with disabilities face unique hard­ships: Lack of reliable transporta­tion, accessibility and public re­sources; government systems that are unresponsive or insensitive to their needs and a public that is largely oblivious to their struggle.

While most Arab countries have extensive laws and statutes pro­tecting the rights of the disabled, such measures are rarely imple­mented and poorly enforced.

In Egypt, where independent in­stitutions estimate the number of people with disabilities could be as high as 10% — at least 9 million peo­ple — the constitution specifically requires the state to make provi­sions for those with disabilities. A bill was introduced in parliament last November to ensure the disa­bled better access to health care, jobs and social welfare programmes

However, those with disabilities say they have not seen the effects.

“All of this is mere ink on paper,” said Hussein Mahmoud, a 26-year-old college graduate from Egypt who has paralytic polio. “Disabled persons suffer at every turn in the absence of protection.”

“On paper, we have rights, legis­lation but this does not necessar­ily translate to concrete changes,” added Gallas.

That disparity resulted in Mahmoud being unable to attend his college of choice, the College of Education, which turned him away because of his disability. Instead, Mahmoud enrolled in the College of Commerce but he has been unable to find a job after graduating, even though Egyptian law reserves 5% of the country’s jobs for those with disabilities.

“Many firms force disabled em­ployees to stay home and send them their salaries” to evade fines, said Egyptian parliament member Mohamed Abu Hamed during a dis­cussion on disability rights. “They consider them a load not an asset.”

In Lebanon, the story is similar.

“The Lebanese law is the most progressive among all Arab legisla­tions and not far from meeting the basic international standards set by the (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), said Nawaf Kabbara, president of the National Association for the Rights of Disabled People in Lebanon, “but, unfortunately, it is far from being implemented.”

According to Kabbara, this im­pacts almost every sector of soci­ety: from health care to education to civic engagement.

“Most voting places remain in­accessible,” said Kabarra, “…Even government hospitals block admis­sion to the disabled in many in­stances.”

In terms of education, things are equally bleak. Due to “the difficul­ties to access regular schools and the scarcity of public schools that accommodate disabled students”, many are illiterate and have only completed primary school, said Kabbara, who noted that their un­employment level is almost 100%.

Charbel Daghfal, a Lebanese en­trepreneur who is paralysed from the neck down, understands these problems well.

After surviving an accident at the age of 17, Daghfal said he became frustrated with the country’s lack of support and resources, especially in transportation.

Last year, Daghfal established Wheelchair Taxi, Lebanon’s first taxi service for those with special needs. The service enables any disabled person with a wheelchair to get around with the help of only the driver.

“The idea came from the reality I was living,” said Daghfal, who after his accident needed the help of “at least three to four people… to get in and out of a car.”

“I would only leave the house if they were all available and had time,” he said.

“This went on until I managed to get a car soon after and was then able to come and go freely with the assistance of the driver only. Having experienced this freedom, I wanted to share it with as many people as I could,” Daghfal said, who started the project with no outside funding or resources.

“The disabled in Lebanon do not have facilities of transportation at all and might not have the chance to leave their house for years,” he said.

Asked about the stigma sur­rounding disabilities in Lebanon, Daghfal said: “The issue is not about ‘stigma’ so much as the ab­sence of awareness.”

“The real problem that disabled people face is more dangerous and painful than that caused by any type of ‘stigma or judgment,” Dagh­fal said. “It is the carelessness peo­ple show towards their situation.”

“When you find yourself in a so­ciety or country in which the gov­ernment does not help with basic needs or give you your rights and nobody lifts a finger, this hurts them more than the way people might look at you.”

Gallas said that while “it’s hard to change things, we can.”

“I am lucky to have good parents who have helped me live my life like anyone else but what about the ones who are neglected?” she asked.

Stephen Quillen is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Tunis.

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