Rethinking Disability: Cultivating Inclusive Spaces in the Middle East

By Kate Moran On December 13, 2006, the United Nations adopted its Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[1] The widespread adoption of the human rights treaty was a significant victory in the decades-long battle for greater visibility and increased rights for disabled individuals worldwide. More recently, Egypt's 2014 constitution granted more than 10 million disabled citizens a number of rights—among them, fair and adequate representation in the House of Representatives, legal equality, and appropriate governmental advocacy efforts.[2] In Jordan, the country’s 1993 Law for the Welfare of Disabled Persons preserves the rights of disabled individuals to educational, health and employment opportunities, as well as social and legal equality.[3] Even more conservative countries like Yemen and Oman are signatories to the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[4]

But legal victories may paint a false picture. Only a few years ago, in May of 2012, eight of Jordan’s 54 private care facilities were brought under investigation for alleged abuse of mentally disabled children.[5] Despite nominal improvements in Middle Eastern governments’ policies toward disabled individuals, social and institutional barriers still largely deny them fair and compassionate treatment.

I first became aware of the challenges disabled individuals face in the Middle East during my visit to Morocco in 2012 where I was working in the special-needs wing of a government-run orphanage. Underfunded facilities, in conjunction with overworked and underpaid staff, exacerbated the extant marginalization of the children living in the orphanage. Reactions to the “disabled” ranged from disgust to fear to disregard. Looking around major cities like Rabat and Casablanca, buildings and public spaces were virtually inaccessible. Wheelchair ramps were nonexistent, and those with more severe disabilities had to be carried through the market by relatives or friends. Clearly, the UN Convention held very little practical implications here.

Despite widespread adoption of the UN convention, and legislative changes at the national level in many countries, the obstacles that disabled persons face in achieving social equality often seem insurmountable. In the Middle East, the prevailing attitude toward disabled people remains one largely of embarrassment; disabled people are a burden and should be hidden away.[6] For many individuals in the region living with a disability, their economic prospects are limited, if they exist at all. They often experience a substantial degree of marginalization, both as a result of discriminatory laws and broader community attitudes. Legislation banning discrimination or preserving disabled persons’ rights are often on the books; but as is the case both in the U.S. and in the Middle East, many governments are only concerned with the appearance of equity, rather than equity itself. Thus, laws alone are not enough to counter the de facto discrimination faced by many disabled individuals in these countries.

Along these lines and in spite of broader structural changes, many disabled individuals in the region have seen very little improvement in their day-to-day lives. Many of the changes to countries’ legislative systems are cosmetic; societal attitudes vis-à-vis disabled persons are still largely driven by misunderstanding and shame. Children born with disabilities—even those with more “manageable” conditions—are often left at orphanages or in the care of other welfare organizations. There remain substantial barriers to disabled persons’ social inclusion, with many resorting to begging or other means to generate an income. Thus, negative stereotypes of their social dependency, perceived “helplessness” and inability to contribute to their communities are perpetuated.

For disabled individuals to achieve the rights and recognition they deserve, countries—both in the Middle East and beyond the region—must work toward normalizing the UN Convention at every level of society. Communities and governments must move from a medical textbook definition of “disabled” to a social one. Whereas the medical definition of disability perceives it as a problem to be fixed, the social model understands disability as a neutral condition. In this model, disabled individuals are designated by their physical and or mental difference, but this difference is neither a positive nor negative; it is simply distinct. While the medical model designates “normalization” of the disabled as a remedy, the social model advocates changes in the interaction between the individual and society.

In order to effectively engage this model of disability, communities and governments must cooperate with and work alongside organizations and individuals working on the ground. One woman, Ola Abu Alghaib, is the founder of Handicap International and herself a disabled individual. With a more than 30-year presence in the region, Alghaib and others like her are forging a path toward enhanced social knowledge of the challenges disabled persons face, as well as greater advocacy for their rights and aspirations. With initiatives like “Making it Work,” the global effort to promote the effective implementation of the Convention, Handicap International and other human rights-based disability advocacy organizations are supporting governments to develop practical changes.

Much work remains to be done. First and foremost, disabled persons’ inherent dignity and social value must be recognized. Education must be augmented to combat misunderstandings and stereotypes of disability. Countries must continue to focus on shifting perceptions of disability from a medical to a social concept, and work to include all people—regardless of disability or lack thereof—in the national discourse. Equality can no longer remain rhetorical; it must take or real substance with practical applications. In instances of discrimination, legal recourse must be pursued to protect and guarantee the rights of all citizens and ensure equity in employment, schooling, and healthcare.

Disability is not a disease. It is not a burden or embarrassment. Disabled individuals are not helpless or deficient or shameful. They are equally deserving of their rights and their dreams. While the Middle East has challenges it must face in terms of inclusion, the region also has the opportunity to lead the charge toward a brighter future for disabled persons. More comprehensive adoption of, and adherence to, the UN Convention is but a small step in this direction. Most importantly, we must continue the shift away from a medical model of disability toward a socially oriented one; in doing so, we will be assuming greater responsibility for the interactions between disabled individuals and the broader systems in which we all operate. This responsibility is not a burden, but rather an avenue to affect change and create the more inclusive spaces that will ultimately benefit us all.

Transforming the discourse around disability in the Middle East has the potential to shape individuals’ futures and improve their quality of life for the better. Doing so will also make the region a more inclusive space for both disabled and non-disabled people, and in this way, inspire other countries and regions to follow suit.

[1] “Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities.” UN News Center. December 13, 2006. Accessed March 2, 2015.

[2] “Constitution of The Arab Republic of Egypt.” State Information Service. January 1, 2014. Accessed March 2, 2015.

[3] “Jordan - Law for the Welfare of Disabled Persons.” Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. January 1, 2000. Accessed March 2, 2015.

[4] “Convention and Optional Protocol Signatures and Ratifications.” UN News Center. Accessed March 2, 2015.

[5] “BBC Uncovers Abuse at Children's Care Homes in Jordan.” The BBC, May 15, 2012. Accessed March 2, 2015.

[6] “‘The Disability Rights Movement in the Middle East Needs an Arab Spring.’” Handicap International UK. August 1, 2012. Accessed March 2, 2015.

[7] “The Social Model of Disability: What Is It and Why Is It Important to Us?” Scope. Accessed March 2, 2015.

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