'Disability differs when you are an Arab': Shifting obsolete notions of disability within the Arab world

Disability series blog
6 min read
20 January, 2022
Disability rights in MENA: Raya al-Jadir, co-founder of disability lifestyle magazine Disability Horizons elaborates on the archaic perception of the disabled within in the Arab World, and what needs to change to encourage a more inclusive future.

A few years ago I had a meeting with my colleagues at Disability Horizons, a UK based disability lifestyle magazine, and when I suggested we include more content on disabled people from ethnic minorities, especially Arabs, the team were puzzled as the assumption is, disabled people are the same regardless of ethnicity. However, this is far from reality.

Being a disabled Arab is very different from being a disabled British or European or even American, partly due to socio-political reasons but mainly it’s the deep-rooted culture that travels beyond the geographical location.

I left the Middle East more than 30 years ago, yet the cultural beliefs that I had inherited never left me and played a big part in the feeling of being an outsider and different within the disabled community in London.

"In most Arab countries, disabled people are not regarded as equal members of society and are encouraged to defy their disability rather than embrace it"

I am a young British Iraqi woman, a PhD candidate and the founder of a disability lifestyle magazine, which is written for and by disabled Arabs. None of this was deemed possible or even realistic when I was growing up, precisely because I am disabled.

To be born with a disability in an Arab culture you are often cast as a “failure” in the eyes of society. As a woman, you are also seen as a “burden”. Blame is placed on the mother as though she has failed to complete her duty of “bearing a healthy child”.

Israa Abu Dawood, a blind 30-year-old Palestinian woman, presents her weekly radio program at the al-Yamama radio station in Al-Khalil/Hebron [Getty Images]
Israa Abu Dawood, a blind 30-year-old Palestinian woman, presents her weekly radio program at the al-Yamama radio station in Al-Khalil/Hebron [Getty Images]

I was born in Mosul, Iraq, where I lived for the first nine years of my life as a happy child. Although I knew I was different, it didn't matter to me greatly. Disability was something that no one talked about openly, although judgemental looks and insensitive comments were a daily occurrence.

Throughout my childhood I did not see a single disabled child; whether it’s because people hid their disabled children from view or some other reason is not clear. I left Iraq and moved to the UK a year before the end of the Iran war, and before life became extremely difficult for all Iraqis, especially those with a disability.

Years of wars, economic sanctions and corruption have dominated life in Iraq and contributed greatly to the fact that the disabled community is simply not a priority for the government. This applies to many countries in the region.

Iraqi disabled youths lined up during a training session at a gym in Baghdad
Iraqi disabled youths lined up during a training session at a gym in Baghdad [Getty Images]

Specialist care and services are either inaccessible or non-existent. Families often choose to home school their children in an effort not to send them to mainstream schools that are ill-equipped to provide support or tackle discrimination.

These are all political, social and economical obstacles which to a certain extent can be challenged or changed but cultural beliefs and attitudes cannot be escaped even if you relocate and move to another continent, as in my case.

To say I am disabled in Arabic or in the Arab region is something detested by many, there is an overwhelming desire to escape it by using terms such as ‘people of determination’, ‘differently abled’ or ‘physically challenged’, all of which I personally find irritating and wrong at so many levels.

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By using ‘people of determination’ you are putting the onus on the disabled person, and freeing society of any duty, for example, if a building is not accessible, the disabled person is expected to enter the building because you are determined after all. It is a term that is patronising just as differently-abled boldly reminds people you are different.

I don't feel very comfortable with any of these terms, but I am always happy to say I am disabled.

Recently I divulged into the problematic use of the term disabled in Arabic. Upon launching Disability Horizons Arabic, (the Arabic version of Disability Horizons) I met, interviewed and interacted with people. Speaking with them, I was reminded of my childhood where escaping or ignoring disability was the way I was taught to live, because being disabled, and saying that you were, meant some people treated you as worthless.

"I have come to the realisation that in the Arab region disabled people seek society’s acceptance and approval to the extent of passivity, so if they are labelled ‘champion’ or ‘hero’ they embrace it with excitement; it’s the only way they will be recognised after all, even if it is demeaning and patronising"

In most Arab countries, disabled people are not regarded as equal members of society and are encouraged to defy their disability rather than embrace it. It is the enemy that must be conquered, whereas in reality it is the people's attitude and infrastructure that must be defied as in them lies the limitation and not in disability.

There is also a contradictory view that people seem to have of those with disabilities. Some see us as superheroes because our daily life is so unimaginable that only a person with superpowers could make it through, let alone excel professionally or personally – a view that negates the need to provide accessibility.

At the other end of the spectrum, we are confronted with pity, because we are seen as helpless and desperately in need of sympathy and prayers. Both views are counter-productive. Why can’t they fathom that a person with a disability is just an ordinary human being?

Disabled Yemeni women take part in a local wheelchair basketball championship in Yemen's capital Sanaa
Disabled Yemeni women take part in a local wheelchair basketball championship in Yemen's capital Sanaa [Getty Images]

As I grew older I realised that the problem doesn’t go away if you leave the Arab region, as I mentioned previously my cultural belief travelled with me across the continents, I began to notice that my English friends who are disabled were encouraged to be more independent than Arabs, many of them have moved out of their family’s home, live alone, have partners, get married, travel independently, work and even have children.

Most of these acts are totally dismissed if you are a disabled Arab woman, marriage is not an option for many, as the family of the disabled person, particularly if you are female, are often protective so naturally, they fear for their daughter getting married not just from the potential suitor but from society’s intruding comments and judgement.

I recall interviewing a group of people years ago about marriage and disability and a young Egyptian guy told me that he doesn’t mind marrying a disabled woman as long ‘as she doesn’t limp or severally disabled’. Appearance is everything and the more you are visibly disabled the fewer chances you have of getting married.

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To a certain extent, I understand this strange perspective, if you are a disabled Arab you would have grown up in a society that instils in you a sense of devalue, that belief that you are incomplete and need to be pitied upon, so how can you think or consider marriage? Which is an essentially equal partnership, but you have been told throughout your life that you are not equal.

Over the years I have come to the realisation that in the Arab region disabled people seek society’s acceptance and approval to the extent of passivity, so if they are labelled ‘champion’ or ‘hero’ they embrace it with excitement; it’s the only way they will be recognised after all, even if it is demeaning and patronising.

In the West and especially the UK, disabled people are at the other end of the spectrum– disabled Arabs are all about collective society, whereas disabled British are more concerned about the individual, they too want acceptance but on their terms and guidance, not society.

Raya al-Jadir is a journalist and researcher, who also runs a blog campaigning on disability and access issues.

Follow her on Twitter: @Carelessrayoon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.