I spent a while studying the image published in this newspaper last week of Riyadh Governor Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz trying out a wheelchair during the ceremony that was held to announce Riyadh as the first disabled-friendly city in Saudi Arabia. This was not surprising, for Prince Salman is known for his charitable and humanitarian work, to which he dedicates a lot of time and effort, following in the example of the Saudi Arabian leadership. Prince Salman’s children are also following in their fathers footsteps, a number of whom are responsible for charitable and humanitarian organizations. However this picture caught my eye because it contains an important message, and because it deals with an issue that affects a section of our citizens who are suffering as a result of discrimination and social disregard of their anguish. This image also contains a lesson because one hopes that if our cities join with Riyadh in reaching out to the disabled community who suffer in silence or are in pain, then their suffering will no longer fall on deaf ears.
When one visits a western country, he can see disabled people in the streets, and on buses and trains, and in supermarkets and offices, meeting their own needs and living their lives without feeling isolated or alone. As for our Arab world, we hardly see people with special needs in the street for in most cases they are prisoners in their own homes, unable to leave the house and move around due to the absence of facilities, or they are socially excluded and under the legal guardianship of hospitals and private clinics.
This absence in many Arab cities seems to be even clearer if we look at the numbers. According to the Arab Labor Organizations, there are twenty million disabled people (or more according to other reports) who need their rights protected and basic needs provided for, and more importantly than this, they need society to change the way it views them and their suffering. Disability, according to the UN Programme on Disabilities [Enable], resides in the society not in the person. Therefore the individual who is unable to move or work is the victim of negative stereotypes and social discrimination, and is not granted the facilities that would allow him to move or work. In the same manner, a disabled child who is not given the same education opportunities as an able-bodied child is a victim of society that does not provide him with the means to attend school, or with special education facilities, or a victim of discrimination by teachers.
The problem could be global. However it is more prominent in our Arab world, and indeed in all developing countries, due to a lack of awareness and facilities and capabilities. According to international statistics, 1 in 10 people in the world suffers from a form of disability. Or in other words, there are approximately 650 million people who are suffering from disability, 80 percent of whom can be found in developing countries. While the proportion of disabled people who are able to work in industrial countries stands between 30 percent and 50 percent, while the rate of unemployment among the disabled in developing countries stands at 90 percent, according to International Labor Organization statistics. As for children, the UNESCO figures reflect a genuine tragedy, as 90 percent of children who suffer from disability in developing countries do not have the opportunity of being educated in schools.
The understanding of disability in many of our countries remains captive to the traditional perceptions and stereotypes; disability is not a personal choice and is not a sentence of deprivation. Neither does disability represent permission for society to rule out an individual or deprive him of the most basic rights, for no reason other than that he suffers from a physical or mental disability or any other form of disability. A disabled person can be a productive and integrated member of society if he is given equal opportunities starting from education and ending in employment. There are many examples of geniuses in science or the arts who overcame their disability and excelled over able-bodied contemporaries to become the leaders in their field. We need to establish humanitarian values and promote awareness and understanding of the needs of a significant section of the people and ensure they have their full rights with regards to welfare, education, and training, as well as freedom of movement, and also ensure that they are not subject to discrimination.
At the inauguration of Riyadh as a disabled-friendly city, Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz expressed his joy at the implementation of the comprehensive accessibility program that he hopes will meet the needs of the disabled people with regards to freedom of movement and integrating with society. He also called on governmental and private organizations to provide support in order to achieve this noble goal. One hopes that this call goes beyond Riyadh, and reverberates throughout our cities and villages to inform people that we are healthy because we are not ignoring the voices and rights of our disabled brothers or sons or daughters.