Disability rights in the Arab World: Progress and challenges

Disability rights in the Arab World: Progress and challenges
4 min read
The Arab World made significant advances in recognizing the rights of people with disabilities but substantial challenges remain, write Nada Ramadan & Mohammad Ali Musawi.
Girls paint with their hands in aid of Lebanese Autism Society in Beirut, May 2015.

The United Nations concluded its 8th Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in its New York headquarters on Thursday.

The three-day conference, held from 9 to 11 June, aimed to mainstream the rights of people with disabilities after the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006.

The convention was signed by 154 state signatories. It requires governments around the world to uphold the equal rights of people with disabilities.

It does this by changing the view of them as people who need charitable assistance, medical attention and social protection, to those have have rights can can play an active role in society.

The convention requires governments to amend or instate legislation that ensures persons with disabilities do not face discrimination or exclusion, and are afforded equal opportunities especially in education and employment.

Disability in the Arab World

All Arab states in the UN have signed the convention with the exception of Somalia and Palestine, which holds non-member observer state status in the UN General Assembly.

According to a 2014 report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the Arab League, "Arab countries report comparatively low prevalence of disability, ranging from 0.4 to 4.9 percent of the population" when compared to other regions in the world.

This is despite risk factors and causes of disability such as communicable and chronic diseases, and armed conflicts being widespread in the Arab region. The report explains this disparity as being due to difficulties in data collection, research and analysis in Arab countries.

     Not enough is being done to fully incorporate persons with disabilities into society in Arab countries.

Nevertheless, Arab countries have made significant advances in institutional and legal frameworks concerning disability. Most Arab countries have included articles on disability in their constitutions, in addition to their existing laws regarding disability.

National laws on the employment of persons with disabilities are widespread in the Arab world, and many countries have introduced employment quotas for people with disabilities that cover both public and private sectors.

Lack of implementation

However, despite the legal frameworks in place, practitioners on the ground and disability rights activists complain that not enough is being done to fully incorporate persons with disabilities into society in Arab countries.

Dr Heba Hagrass, an Egyptian disability rights activists and head of her country's National Council on Disability Affairs, recently told the Egyptian press that the government's 5 percent employment quota for people with disabilities is not being implemented. This is because people with disabilities only represent 0.4 percent of Egypt's working population.

Hagrass added that many employers have never heard of the 5 percent quota, because it is stated in social affairs law not employment law. 

Al-Araby al-Jadeed spoke to a practitioner who works mainly with people with visual and hearing disabilities in Qatar, one of the wealthier Arab countries.

Discussing the situation in Qatar he said: "I would not say it is good, but it has certainly improved over the past few years. We are not there yet, not like the US and Europe, but we are getting there."

He explained that the issue most of his clients complain about is "accessibility to transportation".

"They also complain about how people treat them. People are not rude to them, on the contrary, they are too nice in an awkward way", he added. "It is more about pity than it is about actual help".

The practitioner added that some of the people with disabilities he works with have full-time jobs, but they say their work is not taken seriously. "Employers hire them either out of pity or to fill a disability quota," he said.

The challenges faced by people with disabilities in the Arab world vary from one country to another based on economic and infrastructural factors.

Despite the legislative advances made by many Arab countries, implementation has been slow and evaluation and analysis of the effectiveness of laws in furthering including people with disabilities into society is severely lacking.

Unfortunately, with the ongoing armed conflicts raging across large swathes of the Arab world, the prevalence of disability is likely to grow, forcing the region's laws and already strained resources to catch up.