How disabled Arabs are using journalism to fight discrimination

Unfiltered and unapologetic: How disabled Arabs are using journalism to fight discrimination
5 min read
03 December, 2017
Feature: Some discriminatory perceptions of disability may still remain in the Arab mainstream, but they are now slowly being unpicked and understood as campaigns move forward and stories become heard.
Disability remains a stigma in the Arab world [Getty]
As the world marks this year’s International Disability Day, question marks on the plight of disabled people in the Arab world arise.

Still a taboo subject, myths surround disability in the region, even before a disabled child is born. The child is identified by their disability and the environment stigmatises and restricts them.

But this isn’t to say the disability activism scene isn’t on the rise in the Arab world. Social media has allowed for the organisation and mobilisation of disability activism to flourish and for disabled people to own their narrative. 

Alternative journalism is also on the rise, with disabled Arab journalists creating their own platforms – unfiltered and unapologetic.

Rather than drawing on existing readerships for palatability, or common feel-good stories of people "overcoming their disability", disabled journalists in the Arab world are becoming increasingly critical of the way their stories are being told.

"Reaching out to people is a slow process, but it is worth it," Raya al-Jadir, founder of Disability Horizons Arabic told The New Arab.

Disabled journalists in the Arab world are becoming increasingly critical of the way their stories are being told

Born with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy, a degenerative muscle wasting condition, the British-Iraqi journalist is all too familiar with the struggles of being disabled, Arab and a woman.

Disability Horizons is a UK-based disability lifestyle publication that has been translated in various languages. Having seen the impact it has made on the English speaking disabled community, Raya reached out to begin an Arabic version of the publication. While it is still growing, it has made a significant impact already.

"I get a lot of e-mails of people saying how much they relate to the articles we post on our website. Sometimes people get inspired to tell their own stories," Raya said.

"Our readership is predominantly disabled people, 95 percent of our writers are disabled and we focus on debunking misconceptions and showing the reality of living life with a disability, rather than the typical ‘feel-good’ stories that come out in the mainstream media," she added. 

Taboos and abuse

However sometimes the consequences of speaking up can also silence people more than the lack of opportunity to write freely itself. 

"A woman wrote for us, telling her story about the way her husband became abusive after finding out their son had Down’s Syndrome," Raya explained.

"Her husband not only refused the child before he was even born, but blamed her for the child having Down’s Syndrome. She then became a single mother and when she tried to move to Canada to find better opportunities for her son, her husband refused to give the courts permission to let them travel."

A woman wrote for us, telling her story about the way her husband became abusive after finding out their son had Down’s Syndrome

After the article was published on Disability Horizons Arabic, it was shared widely across the region as it highlighted the realities of being a mother to a disabled child.

But the author had asked Disability Horizons Arabic to take down the article after it attracted more popularity than what she had expected out of fear of putting herself and her son in a dangerous position should her ex-husband find it.

Body image and click-bait material

Body image is not something that is exclusive to people with disabilities, but it is still prevalent in disabled communities. More often than not, abled bodied people are still being told to compare themselves to their disabled counterparts and to be "thankful" for the way they look. At large, mainstream society is unable to comprehend the idea of disability being synonymous with beauty.

"It depends on the degree of your disability and whether you were born disabled or became disabled because of an accident," Raya said.

"If you’re wheelchair bound, are able to sit upright and have a beautiful face, mainstream societal protocol says you are more beautiful than someone who is more severely disabled," she added.

While to abled bodied people, the concept of disability remains a flattened one, layers and privilege structures within society are all too noticeable for people in the disabled community.

Beauty also affects the amount of shares an article gets in some cases. "When we share stories of children, the ones with babies that are deemed cute get more shares," Raya explained.

"Articles about babies with Down’s Syndrome do very well because babies with Downs Syndrome are deemed to be cute."

Being disabled, a woman and Arab

According to Raya, being a disabled Arab woman is much harder than being a disabled man, as females also face a structural sexism fight in Arab societies. 

Disabled women have to live with heightened sexism because they are seen to be more fragile and more dependent on men than the abled bodied woman.

"It’s easier for disabled women to face abuse from their partners, because of the pressure to marry. Disabled women are more likely to settle for less than what they deserve because they feel less worthy of love than their abled bodied counterparts," Raya said. 

The Arab world is slowly waking up to the fact that people with disabilities have lives

Despite there still being blatant obstacles, not all hope is lost. While progress is slow and discriminatory perceptions of disability remain in the Arab mainstream, they are slowly being unpicked as campaigns move forward and stories become heard.

"More disabled people in the Arab world are starting to run their own organisations and build their own media platforms. We’re seeing less of disability charities being run by abled-bodied people who have no idea what it means to be disabled, and more charities run by people who are going through what they are advocating," Raya explained.

"Places are becoming more accessible and the Arab world is slowly waking up to the fact that people with disabilities have lives," she added. 

Alternative media has changed the lives of disabled people across the region. Rather than mainstream media outlets tokenising disability and only talking about disabled people if they had "risen above" challenges to achieve something outstanding, a more realistic approach is emerging.

Disability Horizons Arabic is not only allowing for disabled people to own their narrative, but is working towards making tangible change in eliminating toxic cultural perceptions on disability. While it takes years, and even decades to stamp out myths and misconceptions, disability activists in the Arab world are refusing to give up and continue to fight not only for themselves, but for the generations to come.