A woman is giving birth at the family home in an impoverished Arab country. A midwife is called, yet she arrives too late. Complications arise. The baby is born, but gradually the family notice that not all is well. At the age of two, the child is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Directly caused by the baby not receiving enough oxygen at the birth, due to the complications.
The family attempt to find out if they can help the child, but the local infrastructure cannot help them. Even in richer Arab countries they cannot find the right care or help for their child. They are able to leave their homeland for the West, a new culture, a new society, yet somewhere where they will be able to make sure their disabled child has the best possible life.
This family and the child are some of the lucky few. The vast majority of disabled people in the Arab world do not have the chance to seek treatment abroad, and the care available in their home countries can often be lacking. Instead, they are sentenced to home imprisonment, a life locked up away from society, invisible in peoples day to day lives, unless they come across them as beggars. If anything people are so used to only seeing the disabled as beggars, that many disabled people often find that they are handed money by kind hearted, yet ignorant, strangers in the street. It’s funny, yet at the same time quite sad.
Whatever their disability, whether it be a physical impairment, blindness, a mental disability, or anything else, they are often invisible to the rest of society. Despite an increase in the understanding of disability, it is still often viewed as a source of shame for a family, as if they have done something wrong, a curse. For the poor they can be seen as a financial burden, hence the abundance of disabled beggars, so they can pay for their keep. And they are not known by their names, but by their disability.
18 Arab countries responded to a survey about the condition of disabled people in the Arab world. According to this survey it was clear that Arab governments are severely lacking when it comes to even basic challenges. There is a failure to raise public awareness about the causes and prevention of disability, and the rights and potentials of persons with disabilities. There are also issues when it comes to passing disabled-friendly legislation, gathering and using information and statistics on disability; and supporting organisations for disabled people. Finally, there is a distinct lack of an effort to create an accessible physical environment for disabled people. Arab cities can be a nightmarish obstacle course for anyone attempting to get around in a wheelchair.
Of course, the Arab world is a wide and varied place, economically, socially, and politically. This is reflected in the conditions disabled people face from country to country. Countries that have faced wars in recent times, or continue to, are some of the worst for disabled people, with them often being at the end of a long line of people who need assistance. Wars also increase the numbers of those disabled, physically and mentally. There are no accurate statistics, yet it is estimated that for every person killed in a war, three are left with a permanent disability. In countries like Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, the ramifications of this are innumerable.
A landmine can cost a person their leg, and yet the trauma of war can often lead to mental scarring. This is not immediately obvious to the wider populace, and this trauma can often lead to a person suffering from their mental disability in silence, with a fear of being shunned by their community, and not understanding that they can receive the help they need.
In those Arab countries with sufficient resources, there has been a slow move towards more recognition for the disabled, and an attempt to improve their lives. The Riyadh governor, Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, designated the city as the first disabled friendly city in Saudi Arabia. Jordan became the first country in the Arab world to bring into force disability specific legislation, and also introduced new building codes aimed at increasing accessibility for the disabled. The Hashemite Kingdom received the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award for its efforts to help its disabled people and make life for them that little bit easier.
These are small steps, and yet they will hopefully eventually lead to a brighter future for disabled people in the Arab world. Often disabled people complain that they are simply pitied, and not really helped, and it is this help that they need. Arab states need to make sure they eradicate backward thinking when it comes to disabled people, and also to give them every opportunity to become active members of society. Society is judged by how it treats those who need assistance, and it is a sad indictment of Arab society when the disabled continue to be invisible.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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