Hissa Al Thani

his article provides a survey of the situation of persons with disabilities in the Arab region. It stresses the diversity of the countries in the region in spite of the common culture, language and religion, and it explores attitudes and perceptions as they affect persons with disabilities, particularly women. Hissa Al Thani is United Nations Special Rapporteur on disability. The article is reprinted from Behinderung und Dritte Welt. Journal for Disability and International Development, 3/2006, p. 4-9.

Disability in the Arab Region: Current Situation and Prospects

Introduction

I was very pleased when I received the request to submit an article to the esteemed journal Behinderung und Dritte Welt (Journal for Disability and International Development), for this is an exciting time in the life of the disability movement and I am very happy to be part of it. I was doubly pleased to learn that this issue of the journal will focus on the Arab region - a region that does not often receive enough attention outside the context of global geopolitics.

Therefore, I would like to use this opportunity to shed some light on the cultural and social diversity of the region, and the effect of that diversity on the disability movement. Additionally I would like to touch on the positive effect that the drafting and of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has had on disability work in the region.

Background

The twenty-two countries1 that make up the Arab world share much in common in terms of religion, culture and language. But even in those aspects, there is a wide range of diversity and subtle differences. There also differences among the countries in the region economically, socially, politically and geographically, all of which have a tremendous effect on social and political movements, including human rights and disability issues. This diversity represents both a challenge and a richness, and the cultural and social norms constitute both an advantage and a disadvantage for persons with disabilities.

In this article I will briefly explore the situation of persons with disabilities in the region. I will touch upon the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the way in which the disability movement responded to its drafting. I would also like to refer to some of the findings of the Global Survey on Government Implementation of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities2 a Survey that was conducted by my office and whose findings are still being analyzed and will be published in January 2007.

The countries in the region vary both to a greater and lesser extent from each other in social, political and economic characteristics. Those characteristics affect the way the governments and society respond to disability and the conditions of persons with disabilities in those countries.

Additionally the wars and armed conflicts in which the region has been embroiled for many years, have directly affected some of the countries more than others: these include Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Sudan. Paradoxically. These wars have been the contributors to the marked increase in disabilities in those countries, and, at the same time, have prevented governments from providing appropriate services.

On the other hand, the oil-rich countries of the Gulf have enjoyed the comforts of economic prosperity for many years, making social change less of a priority until very recently. Civil society and non-governmental organizations in those countries have not yet established full independence from the State in terms of outlook and point of view.

Poverty, under-development and the lack of resources in some countries have also had an impact on the prevalence of disability and the less than adequate response by governments.

Moreover, there are those countries for whom the desire for and the efforts at social change and development are not matched by avail-able resources, yet they have achieved higher levels of literacy and medical and other social services, as well as fostering a healthy and independent civil society movement, including representative disabled persons organizations.

And finally there are also issues specific to the culture that have had a particular effect on women with disabilities in many countries of the region.

It is natural that all these factors, along with the central role that religion plays in the lives of people in the region, would affect the way the issue of persons with disabilities is dealt with, and indeed the social and official attitudes towards persons with disabilities.

Cause and Prevention

Disability prevention - at the social, policy and medical levels - has been identified as a priority in every meeting and encounter I have had with officials from that region. Governments and disabled persons organizations in the region have been dealing with some of the most direct causes of disability and have been devising policies and programmes to tackle them. One of the main tools being used in the prevention is mass media public awareness campaigns.

As mentioned above, wars, civil strife and their aftermath, such as landmines and unexploded ordinance, contribute greatly to the prevalence of disability. Although there are no accurate statistics regarding disability as a result of war, informal estimates and experienced observation suggest that for every person killed three people are left with a permanent disability.

Naturally the ideal way of preventing disability caused by war and armed conflict is to declare universal peace. Much as that would be desirable, it does not seem likely in the near future. Therefore, prevention in this respect has mainly taken the form of landmine education and public awareness campaigns about the dangers of unexploded cluster bombs, and the like. Most recently, (November 4, 2006) Lebanese citizens organized the National Day Against Cluster Bombs which included awareness and education about the dangers.

Young men, fast cars, open roads, and the ride often ends in head or spinal cord injury - disabilities caused by road accidents have been on the increase as the standards of living have risen. This has become a major problem in many countries in the region, and public education and awareness about road safety and the dangers of reckless speed are not nearly adequate to counter the problem.

Social practices have also been identified as a contributing factor in the prevalence of disability. In Arab societies, family ties are uppermost and tradition still governs social life. Among traditional, social and family practices, is that of inter-familial or con-sanguineous marriages. These kinds of marriages, more popular in some countries than in others but practised in all, play a major role in perpetuating disability through several generations.

In poor, rural and/or agricultural communities, in addition to the inter-familial marriages, poverty, inadequate pre- post- and neo-natal health care, and the youth and illiteracy of mothers, all contribute to the increase in disability and exacerbate the conditions of disability among young women and newborns. Measures are being taken to increase the legal age for marriage and to provide young mothers with health and nutrition training, particularly in rural and poorer communities.

Still it would certainly not be an understatement to state that far more needs to be done in the area of prevention.

Situation in the Region

Historically, persons with disabilities in the Arab region have suffered no more and no less of the discrimination and marginalization that all persons with disabilities have suffered throughout the world. Generally speaking services and aid to persons with disabilities were motivated by pity and charity, and predominantly provided by religious-based institutions and organizations.

The rights-based approach to the needs of persons with disabilities began with the World Programme of Action Concerning Persons with Disabilities3 which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1982.

The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities followed ten years later and was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly, expressing the world's moral and political commitment to the issue of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, as the Global Survey revealed, twelve years after the adoption of the Standard Rules no single country has yet succeeded in fully implementing them.

Also, according to the findings of the Survey from the 18 Arab countries that responded out of the 22, Arab governments have yet to meet some basic challenges with regard to the implementation of the Standard Rules. These include raising public awareness about causes and prevention of disability, and the rights and potentials of persons with disabilities; passing legislation; gathering and using information and statistics on disability; supporting organizations of persons with disabilities, and ensuring their representation; and creating an accessible physical environment.

One of the main challenges facing the recognition of the rights of persons with disabilities in the region, is the recognition of disability itself. Without accurate and reliable data on the size, scope, types, prevalence and causes of disability, there can be no appropriate services or programmes and no proper response to the needs.

It is perhaps telling that there is a direct and positive correlation between the level of development of a country and the reported percentages of disability. While Europeans place the percentage of persons with disabilities in their countries in the double digits, the Arab countries invariably report that figure at under 5%.

Considering all the factors that cause disability in the region, stated above, such percentages are certainly unrealistic and do not reflect the true situation. Therefore, I can only conclude that this is an indication of the unwillingness on the part of government officials to recognize disability as an issue that demands social and governmental attention. In many ways, this is akin to "being in denial". It is easier to deny the existence of a condition than to have to deal with it.

Arab societies are family and community oriented, unlike the individualistic nature of most Western societies. Therefore, there is a strong belief that "people take care of their own" rather than delegate that responsibility to government. This credo, the tightly knit extended family structure, along with the lack of government support, and an organizational and institutional base for services, results in something of a forced integration for persons with disabilities. Such an integration into society is not supported by an accessible physical environment or specific services.

Having said that, I must stress that this kind of integration is not rights-based and does not happen in response to the equalization initiatives. It is the only alternative to isolation and marginalization. It does not follow a recognition of needs, potentials and abilities of persons with disabilities to contribute equally to society. It is most often a personal effort on the part of a family that possesses financial resources and of the person with disabilities him or herself to break down barriers and overcome obstacles, whether they be social, physical, environmental, or attitudinal.

The general condition of persons with disabilities in Arab societies is invisibility. In particular, persons with intellectual, developmental or psychosocial disabilities are considered a source of shame and a burden to their families. But none more so than women with disabilities. If women with disabilities in other parts of the world suffer double discrimination, once based on gender and again based on their disability, then it is safe to say, if such a thing is possible, that women with disabilities in the Arab region suffer triple discrimination.

Although the status of disabled women generally in the Arab world varies from country to country, the theme of marginalization to a greater or lesser extent, is common to all of them. In poorer countries or in more conservative communities this marginalization is deeper and more difficult to combat.

As women, they are segregated from male society, but as women with disabilities they are also isolated from the lives of other women. They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible; their issues receive little, or no, consideration; and there are very few programmes that target them specifically. In a social structure that is male dominated in the best of cases, women with disabilities do not stand a chance of rehabilitation, education, accessibility or any number of services available to men with disabilities.

In communities where a woman's status is dependent on making "a good marriage", being "a good wife" and a "good mother", women with disabilities do not stand a chance. They are not considered marriageable and often their non-disabled siblings are also overlooked in marriage by reason of association.

Predominantly women with disabilities are far more likely to suffer violence and sexual abuse. Paragraph 152 of the recent report by the United Nations Secretary General on violence against women4, released this month, states that,

"Women with disabilities may experience violence...in their homes and institutional settings, perpetrated by family members, caretakers or strangers."

It also states that according to surveys and research,

"over half of women with disabilities have experienced physical abuse, compared to one third of non -disabled women."

This is also true in some countries of the region. There are other forms of abuse of girls and women with disabilities. Girls from poverty stricken communities, particularly rural areas, who suffer mild developmental or intellectual disabilities, are often sent into domestic work, where they are subjected, in the mildest of cases, to verbal abuse relating to their disability.

Women with disabilities in the region lack the organizations that sup-port them and address their specific needs as women and as disabled persons. At the same time they are outside of the women's rights movement that is growing exponentially in the region. They occupy a grey area socially. In the last two years, efforts encouraged and promoted by the Office of the Special Rapporteur, have begun by providing a forum for women in the region to speak of their experiences, identify their needs, raise awareness of their rights, and mobilize and organize for themselves.

Another challenge facing the region has to do with education for children and adults with disabilities. Research conducted by the office of the Special Rapporteur has shown that children with disabilities are not integrated into the mainstream educational system in the region. Schools have not been made accessible nor are there educational materials in accessible formats.

Additionally, teacher training in special education is also relatively scarce. Although illiteracy rates vary considerably from one country to another, UNESCO has placed the illiteracy rate in the region as a whole at 46% for women and 25% for men.5 It would not be an overstatement to say that the lack of educational opportunities for persons with disabilities contributes to the high percentages of illiteracy in the region.

Recently, it came to my attention that signing, sign language interpretation and interpreters constitute a major challenge for deaf persons in the Arab region. Deaf children and adults are being deprived of their right to education due to lack of interpretation services in schools and higher education institutions. In a joint initiative with the Finnish Government and the World Federation for the Deaf, I have launched a pilot project to assess the needs and explore the means of meeting them through training of teachers, interpreters, community workers, and widely disseminating sign language training materials.

Efforts are always being made to build the capacity of, strengthen and support civil society organizations in the Arab world. I have concluded, based on the findings of the Global Survey, that this is especially true of disabled persons organizations. Upon comparing government and DPO responses to questions regarding the existence of services, we were surprised to find that, contrary to responses from other regions, Arab DPOs over-reported the existence of services while governments under-reported them. This may be a reflection of the political systems in which those DPOs operate.

However, it may also reflect an immaturity on the part of civil society - in many countries the establishment of civil and non-governmental organizations is relatively recent. It could also indicate that the absence of reliable data and accurate statistics in the region has skewed the perceptions of disabled persons organizations.

Whatever the case may be, and in the end it is possibly a combination of all those factors - the lack of resources, the lack of recognition and awareness, the restrictive political systems, and the levels of social and economic development - persons with disabilities in the Arab region face a great deal of challenges.

If I were asked what in my opinion is the greatest challenge facing disability in the region, I would have to say it is the lack of awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities, coupled with the lack of clear and actionable legislation protecting those rights. This, I believe, is the most direct contributor to the prevalent social attitudes that persons with disabilities are faced with.

Persons with disabilities are a source of shame, a financial burden, even seen as a curse on their families; the words used to describe or denote disability are derogatory and pejorative; people are often identified by their disability, or their disability replaces their given name. In colloquial language, the words that denote different types of disabilities have become common swear words. Such attitudes are no longer as prevalent as they used to be a decade or so ago, but they do still exist and constitute the basis of an awareness raising agenda for the Arab region.

It is important to note that such attitudes do not stem from Islamic religious beliefs. In fact, the Quran has very little to say about disability per se. The mentions of disability - such as blindness or deafness - in the Quran are figurative references; (e.g. the blindness of the heart, or the deafness to God's teachings). According to the Islamic scholar Sheikh Isse A. Musse, of the Islamic Council of Victoria,

"Islam sees disability as morally neutral. It is seen neither as a blessing nor as a curse. Clearly, disability is therefore accepted as being an inevitable part of the human condition. It is simply a fact of life which has to be addressed appropriately by the society of the day."6

As Special Rapporteur on Disability, and as a woman from the Arab region who belongs to the Muslim faith, using such pronouncements by prominent Muslim scholars has been extremely helpful in advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities. In societies as deeply religious as those in the region, it is important to use the tools of their beliefs in order to change social attitudes and replace discrimination with acceptance. This is especially true when talking about the obligations of society towards persons with disabilities and the accommodations that need to be made in order to achieve their full participation in all aspects of life.

In the past three years, I have commissioned a group of young film makers to produce television public awareness spots that emphasize the potentials and capabilities of person with disabilities and highlight the practices that keep them from achieving them. The latest such production has been an Arabic Rap Song entitled "Difference is Natural"7 performed by young persons with different types of disabilities and featuring a known Arab rap artist. The clip started airing on Arabic television stations on November 1, 2006, and will also air on stations devoted to pop music and popular youth culture.

In addition to raising awareness about the rights of persons with disabilities among youth and society in general, another key factor in improving the situation is through drafting, strengthening, enacting and applying legislation based on the principle of equalization of opportunities and aimed at achieving the full participation of persons with disabilities in society.

Again efforts are underway in that direction through symposia organized by the Office of the Special Rapporteur and the Arab Parliamentary Union to increase awareness among legislators and to build their capacity to legislate and protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Arab Parliaments and Legislative Councils have been very receptive to the symposia, which bring together persons with disabilities, their representative organizations and members of parliament in a two-day structured dialogue and exploration of a specific right as expressed by the Standard Rules.

A more difficult area to tackle despite the improvement in attitudes to-wards persons with disabilities generally, is the stigma that surrounds psychosocial disabilities. This, we know, is not particular to the Arab region alone, as results of the Global Survey indicated that in less than 30% of the countries, are the needs, requirements and services for persons with psychosocial disabilities taken into consideration. Even within the disability movement itself recognition of psychosocial disabilities has been slow.

But as I indicated at the beginning, this is an exciting time for the disability movement world wide and the Arab region is no exception. The global rights movements exemplified by the drafting and adoption of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has had a great impact on disability issues in the Arab region, and there are a number of reasons why I believe the future outlook for persons with disabilities in the region is positive.

The drafting process went a long way in mainstreaming the issues associated with disability and providing a forum for general discussion of those issues. It was also instrumental in defining the role of disabled persons organizations and strengthening activism and advocacy by persons with disabilities themselves.

Although the Arab region was the last region to adopt a Decade for Persons with Disabilities (2004), it was able to make use of much of the available experiences and lessons learned from the African, Asian and Latin American Decades. It also responded to the momentum created by the drafting of the Convention.

The Global Survey to which a majority of the Arab countries responded will also go a long way in helping identify the issues and the shortcomings and defining ways of responding to them. It will also allow the disabled persons organizations in the region to develop a better understanding and target for their advocacy efforts.

Finally, one of the main reasons I am optimistic regarding the issues and rights of persons with disabilities in the region, is the growing interest of the media and government officials in these issues. This has definitely been influenced by the international work that has been going on with the regard to drafting of the Convention and the awareness that this has raised throughout the world.

Another factor that has helped has been the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Disability from the region. This has provided an impetus for the region to start acting upon their good intentions and activating their political and moral obligations towards persons with disabilities.

Notes 

1AlgeriaLibyaSudan
Bahrain
Mauritania
Syria
Comoros
Morocco
Tunisia
EgyptOmanUnited Arab Emirates
Iraq
PalestineYemen
Jordan
Qatar
Djibouti
Kuwait
Saudi ArabiaSomalia
Lebanon
  


2 The questionnaire was sent to one government body and two disabled persons organizations in each of the 192 United Nations Member States. Responses were received from 114 countries.

3 World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons A/RES/37/52, http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/diswpa00.htm

4 Secretary General's study on violence against women, 61st Session of the General Assembly, 2006, Item 60 (a) on advancement of women, page 162, paragraph 152.

5 lliteracy in the Arab World, Hassan R. Hammoud, Beirut, Lebanon, 2005. See also Adult Education and Development, 66, 2006, pp. 83.

6 Disability: An Islamic Insight, Sheikh Isse A. Musse, Imam, Islamic Council of Victoria, http:// www. icv. org. au/disabilityarticle. shtml

7 "Difference is Natural" will be available on CD with English subtitles in December 2006.