A group of 19 Northeastern University journalism students – 13 writers and six photographers -- is traveling through Jordan and Turkey through mid-June as part of the school’s Dialogue of Civilization program.
AMMAN, Jordan – With crowded streets, uneven sidewalks, and aging buildings, Jordan is not a good place to use a wheelchair or function with any physical disability. And government leaders have historically done very little to raise awareness and force infrastructure changes to accommodate people with special needs.
But with approximately 30 million people in the Middle East and North African region with disabilities, according to the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University, that sort of action is certainly needed.
“We have the promotion of ideas, yes, but the capabilities, surely not for everyone, especially the blind and deaf in Jordan,” said Ismail Zaghmouri, a Braille auditor for the Friendship Association of the Blind, who is blind. “We told the [government,] we need more facilities, in the environment especially.”
Eighty-five percent of people with disabilities live in developing countries, and therefore are doubly disadvantaged by poverty and disability, according to the United Nations.
“The main problem to be handicapped in Jordan is how people see handicapped people not being able to do anything, to study anything, maybe because the government doesn’t tell the population how the handicapped people can do anything. We can do everything,” said Mutaz Aljuneidi, 35, who had polio when he was 5, leading to paralysis in both legs. “This is our problem, and every time we ask our government for what we need, they say, ‘Maybe in the future we will do it.’ It’s step by step in Jordan.”
Most of the laws in the Middle East primarily focus on dealing with other issues, such as gender, said Abdel Qader, CEO of the Asian Blind Union in Jordan.
“I think most people [with disabilities] have been integrated into society, but there is still a feeling of pity,” he said.
It's been 30 years since the Jordan Sports Federation for the Handicapped (JSFH), which supervises disabled sports in the country, was established. A 1993 law affirmed disabled citizens’ rights and established the National Council for the Welfare of Disabled Persons.
But vigorous attempts to raise awareness didn't begin until 2007. The Jordanian government and the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities (HCD), which acts as a liaison between the government and civil society, began working on 12 initiatives to improve the lives of the disabled, said Adnan Al Aboudy, empowerment and awareness coordinator for HCD. The initiatives dealt with higher education, family involvement, accessibility, rehabilitation, and violence awareness.
And just this week, the HCD announced that students with disabilities would be exempted from paying 90 percent of their tuition fees in graduate programs.
But there is still much to do.
“The stakeholders believe that we have a very good law, but the problem is that the law is not implemented,” said Muhannad al Azzeh, disability rights specialist for the Jordan Civil Society Program, who is blind. “The Higher Council is working at it, but they have specific limits. Their job is to propose and draft regulations to the prime minister. But the job is for the prime minister’s office to adopt these regulations and to issue them and publish them officially.”
Part of the problem is changing the way Jordanians view people with disabilities, as helpless and sad figures unable to do much.
“People in the street used to say, ‘Poor lady,’ and looked at me like I was from Mars,” said Maha Barghouthi, 48, of Amman, who has earned one gold and two bronze medals in wheelchair table tennis since 2000 at the Paralympic Games. “People know now that having disabilities doesn’t mean we have to be at home all the time. We have rights. They see me now and say, ‘She’s a hero. She’s a gold medalist.’ ”
The UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol in 2006. Jordan ratified it in 2008, the 18th country in the world to do so, and the first Arab country. The country also introduced building codes to provide better accessibility for people with disabilities.
Taher Abuhejlih, 48, who has been in a wheelchair for more than 40 years after receiving the wrong injection for a high fever, said he started witnessing changes in society’s attitudes during the mid-1980s.
“Now there is development, especially mentally, to change the attitude of people…to understand I have a strong mind and potential,” Abuhejlih said. “The [government] is working on it and giving disabled people more power.”
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award was presented to Jordanian King Abdullah II at the UN headquarters in New York in March 2005 for noteworthy progress toward full and equal participation of people with disabilities in society.
“I see a very good progress in the disabilities movement,” al Azzeh said. “Some people believe it isn’t the case, but when you’re talking about changes in beliefs and rights and movements, it’s a very, very long-term process. You cannot expect a radical change within one or two years."
To read more from the Northeastern students:http://northeasternuniversityjournalism2011.wordpress.com/
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