People with disabilities in Arab world face struggle
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.