Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Disabled Need More Support

Although Syria has made strides in helping the disabled, it needs to do more to provide services, health care and rights to people with disabilities, according to local experts.

As in many countries in the region, people with disabilities in Syria suffer from discrimination and lack of rights and health care that would improve their quality of life, say advocates for the disabled.

Syrians with disabilities have few opportunities, and those who are in wheelchairs find it difficult to move around because of the lack of accessible buildings and public areas.

“A very small percentage of handicapped are able to study and work because [the disabled as a group] are regarded as totally helpless,” said May Abu Ghazala, coordinator for the integration of the handicapped at the ministry of education.

“For example, many people believe that a physically handicapped person is mentally retarded,” said Ghazala, who suffered from polio as a child.

Since the 1940s, children with disabilities have received assistance such as basic staples like milk. In recent years, the authorities have paid more attention to people with disabilities by creating a special council to provide support – a move welcomed by the United Nations. In addition, Asma al-Assad, the wife of President Bashar al-Assad, has received praise for aiding the handicapped.

But critics say the council has not yet been able to effect enough change on the ground. and disabled issues in Syria are not a high enough priority.

Since there are no statistics on the number of people with disabilities, it is difficult to ensure aid reaches them, said Shawqi Ghanim, an advocate for the handicapped who works at the Autism Society, a group based in al-Lathiqiya in northwestern Syria.

Syria also lacks strong initiatives to support the disabled, according to experts.

“Laws issued regarding work rights and the integration of the handicapped haven’t been effective until now because they aren’t binding,” said Ghanim.

People living with disabilities in Syria often face social and physical isolation, as well as discrimination. And families say they have few resources to support them.

Ghalia, a 40-year-old housewife and mother of two in Al-Lathiqiya, a coastal city in northwestern Syria, said she struggles to care for her two boys who are paralysed. While they have had some opportunities to study and receive physical therapy, they lack one basic necessity – wheelchairs.

Ghalia, who asked that her last name not be used, said her husband works abroad to support the family.

Caring for her sons, the oldest of whom is now 12, has taken its toll on her, she said. Her back went out last year after carrying them, and she now has difficulty even standing in the kitchen to cook for the family.

Over the past five years, “early intervention” has become a popular phrase among Syrian advocates for the disabled. This approach, which is widely used in western nations for more than 20 years, emphasises diagnosing and treating disabilities at an early stage in a person’s life.

A national centre for early intervention opened earlier this summer in al-Lathiqiya.

Experts say that while the approach should improve people’s lives, social acceptance is just as important – and equally challenging to achieve.

“The community’s ignorance is a reality, and is a big barrier to working on disabled issues,” said Ghanim.

“Early intervention to rehabilitate the handicapped is a preliminary step to integrating them,” he maintained. “The community must be prepared to accept the idea of integrating the handicapped.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists.)

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