Invisible citizens: Living with disability in Iraq
London - War-torn Iraq is no country for healthy able-bodied citizens, let alone people with disabilities.
In a country enveloped by political violence “the disabled community is simply not a priority”, said Raya al-Jadir, co-founder of the Arabic language version of Disabilities Horizons.
She is not alone in that view. Rasha al-Lamee, who started the Karbala-based charity Dima Foundation, said that, in Iraq, the birth of a child with a disability is distressing enough “but never without the [additional] burden of shame”.
In absence of official figures, statistics on disabilities are highly unreliable. Campaigners in the country have put the number of disabled at 3 million-4 million.
Specialist care and services for the disabled community are either inaccessible or non-existent, they said, as military operations devour the federal budget.
Prolonged military action and sectarian conflicts have resulted in a sharp increase of congenital diseases, in Falluja predominantly. Aside from the toxic legacy of war, improvised explosive devices and hazardous waste are commonly cited causes of amputations.
The absence of specialist programmes, organisations and charities mirrors the failure of the government to appreciate the size of the problem, Lamee and others working to benefit the disabled said.
“Few equipped organisations exist,” said Lamee, whose charity supports children living with Down syndrome. “To my knowledge, our school is still the only centre dedicated to children with disabilities and, in particular, Down’s.”
Lamee said she relies on private funding to sustain the foundation’s activities. The school she set up in 2007 operates six classes for a total of 73 students between 7 and 22 years old.
Jadir spoke of two schools in Baghdad — one for the deaf and mentally challenged and another for children with autism or Down’s syndrome.
“The drive towards conservatism in our society is not without costs for the physically and cognitively disabled,” she said. “Music classes are denied at some schools, while, in more religious cities, girls with severe learning disabilities are forced to dress, from head to toe, in Islamic garb and cover their heads.”
Although Iraq is party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the gulf between its rhetoric and plan of action is ever widening. To bridge the gap, a law was passed in 2013 to protect and represent the rights of people with disabilities and special needs. However, the Ministry of Planning has not compiled a registry to document the names and number of disabled in Iraq.
The measure had renewed hopes for families with promises of salary payments to careers but this has not always materialised. A member of a Baghdad family said in discussion about a severely autistic son: “All we have seen are unfulfilled promises.”
The Iraqi Alliance for Disability, a non-governmental organisation that functions as a resource centre, where community members go to gain knowledge, skills and confidence, has not shied from criticising the government, which it accuses of “negligence and inattention”. Moaffak Alkhafaji, the organisation’s director and a former Iraqi Army colonel, has become the most recognisable disabled rights campaigner in the country.
Abu Nidhal sustained wounds during the Iraq-Iran war that left him paralysed from the waist down.
“Back in the late ’80s and ’90s specialist access equipment was built for handicapped war veterans like myself,” Abu Nidhal said in a phone interview. “Neighbourhoods with built-in ramps were introduced to enhance mobility and vehicles were adapted such as the Toyota Corona — nicknamed Corona for the disabled for the same reasons”.
As a wheelchair user, Abu Nidhal drew attention to the fact that disabled people in rural areas often face bigger hurdles than those in large cities.
A UN commissioned report last year stated that the Iraqi disabled community’s “potential remains so far untapped” in absence of national standards and guidelines on accessibility and universal design.
Heavy damage to Iraq’s medical infrastructure has made matters worse, mirroring the empty promises of post-war nation-building, Lamee said.
“Undoubtedly the state of the health care system has had the greatest effect on those with the greatest needs. Many of our children have multiple health problems, which their parents cannot afford to address,” Lamee said.
Jadir added that “across the Arab world, the disabled community is facing tough times… at the same time we are living in exciting times, as people are no longer idle, and outrage is driving action.
“Because politics and religion are very divisive subjects in the Arab region, I decided to establish a magazine free of both. The only time these themes emerge is when they affect our daily life, such as access in places of worship, where we can challenge the infrastructure of our cities, which ultimately reflects on the government.”
Alongside tangible obstacles, widely held attitudes can be equally as stunting for disabled persons, Jadir explained. Challenging these perceptions is “more difficult in the Arab world”, she said, “especially in the face of censorship”.
On a positive note, Jadir said “we are seeing more initiatives” to help the disabled with organisations such as the Iraqi Alliance for Disability having regular lectures and workshops to address issues government groups are failing to address.