Every year on the third of December, civil society organizations and accessibility advocates around the world commemorate International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In its best iterations, it is a celebration of diversity and resilience centered around uncompromised demands for greater accessibility. At its worst, it is a patronizing reaffirmation of problematic and highly discriminatory stereotypes that are at the heart of marginalizing people with physical, sensory and learning disabilities.
On this day, everyone at shakomakoNET lends their voice to the millions of Iraqis living with disabilities, wherever they may be, as they demand greater accessibility to public spaces and services across the country and beyond. We are true believers that disability is not an affliction, disease or disfigurement. Instead, we see disability as being caused by inaccessibility.
To discuss the dynamics surrounding disability and accessibility further, we recently sat down with Raya Al Jadir, an Iraqi journalist and co-founder of the first Arabic language lifestyle e-magazine of its kind, Disability Horizons. Raya holds a Master’s Degree in Renaissance Studies from Queen Mary, University of London, and has written for some of the world’s leading outlets such The Independent, the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera about a variety of art and cultural topics.Q: Shakomako? What’s going on with you these days? A: I am writing a new chapter of my PhD thesis which focuses on the influence of servants in shaping plot-lines of early modern English drama. I’m also busy with preparing articles and virtual events in time for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Q: In your opinion, what is it exactly that people should be celebrating on International Day of Persons with Disabilities? A: I am actually not a big fan of these international awareness days. We have Autism Awareness Day, Down’s Syndrome Day, Cerebral Palsy Day, and so many others, but what do these days actually achieve? We see nothing more than a few symbolic displays around a city to, “raise awareness,” and charities or organisations holding events that get the topic trending on social media for a few hours and then, that’s it! The next day it’s back to the same attitudes and the same challenges without any real and effective change.
Plus, if we look around us, and globally, the state of the average person with disability is gradually deteriorating. Even countries that are at the forefront of affording its citizens with disability their rights such as the United Kingdom are under investigation for violations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), so you can imagine what people with disabilities in the Arab world are dealing with.Q: As an Iraqi woman and journalist and academic, how have those parts of your identity intersected with your disability? A: Being an Iraqi women with a disability is certainly a challenge, as I find myself constantly fighting on different fronts, whether it is a struggle against patriarchal attitudes from within my own community or defending myself from racism pointed against Arabs from the outside, or against the global phenomenon of ableism.
At times, I feel that I am constantly defending these different segments of my identity.
This struggle also extends to my professional life, where I’ve always been told that I can’t study what I want, or I can’t work in a certain field that I wanted to. As a child, I wanted to be an actress. I began to study drama but dropped out when I was told that there was no future for me in that field. I then wanted to be a lawyer, but my teachers told me that courts were housed in old buildings that were difficult to access. I also considered being a teacher and even started my professional training, only to realize that none of the local schools in the area of London I lived in were actually accessible!
At the end, pursuing a PhD turned out to be the best route for me. It combined my passions for drama and storytelling and gave me the confidence to start a blog, which eventually became the base from where I started publishing my work across various media outlets around the world.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is this extreme sense of pity towards people with disabilities, where people with disabilities are seen as helpless masakeen that desperately need everyone’s sympathy and prayers. Some actually believe that people with disabilities enjoy favored status with god, due to our perceived suffering on earth, prompting people to ask us to pray for them!
These are both very dramatic and counterproductive points of view. Why can’t people fathom that a person with a disability is just an ordinary human being without all these false attachments?Q: What do the terms disability and accessibility mean to you?
Whereas disability is a state of being that is not chosen by an individual, the provision and denial of accessibility is a choice that is taken by decision makers. Disability is not the obstacle, but the lack of accessibility is.
Instead of putting pressures on people with disabilities to be more determined and to fight harder, put pressure on society to provide accessible tools and spaces so that people with disabilities can partake in society at par with everyone else.
Imagine asking someone to take part in a sailing competition without a boat, and that they just have to rely on their determination to do it.Q: What role do you think people with disabilities should play in creating accessibility laws, policies and standards? A: Unlike the Arab World, most disability activists in the UK are people with disabilities themselves. Most of the charities and advocacy organizations are also led by users themselves. This is important as it reaffirms the premise, “nothing for us without us.” It also doesn’t perpetuate an environment where people with disabilities are waited to be gifted their rights by non-disabled people. Q: Having lived in both Mosul and London, how have those two experiences been similar and different in terms of accessibility? A: I was born and raised in Mosul until the age of 9. This was in the 80s. I loved my life there. I was physically stronger so I was able to do more. Lack of accessibility meant that we had to improvise and do things differently. I used a tricycle to move around places; which was nice because it meant that my legs and arms were constantly active. I used to bottom shuffle my way in the house, even climbing flights of stairs so I was never just sitting still.we should be defying society and our surroundings to be more accessible rather than defying our disability.
All this changed when I came to the UK. The first thing they did when I arrived was give me a wheelchair and put me in an accessible school setting which I loved, but I guess it was the first time that I truly realized my disability, or even saw myself as a person with a disability.
When I was in Mosul, I was oblivious to the fact that I was rejected by several schools due to my disability. I only found out few years ago because my parents protected me from all the discrimination and prejudice that surrounded me.
Although I was aware that I was different, the term “disabled,” was never ever mentioned or brought up in front of me. I didn’t see any other disabled children in Mosul but it didn’t bother me as it just made me feel more unique. I think my parents suffered far more than me as they were the ones that faced questions derogatory comments about me like, “How long have the doctors given her?” Or, “Oh all this hassle for this thing?”
My parents were desperate to find a “cure,” taking me on endless travel journeys to see specialists in the USA, the UK and France, in addition to soliciting the help of spiritual and religious figures in hopes of a miracle. I went along but always refused their remedies; partly because I was spoilt and wanted my own way but mainly because I never had the desire to be cured! I was happy the way I was.
Therefore to compare my life in Mosul to London is an unfair comparison, we always long to our childhood as we look back with a romantic nostalgic view but in reality I was naive and unaware of my surroundings, I was more able and heavily protected. London is where I found myself and embraced my disability rather than escape or ignore it as I did in Mosul.Q: As a journalist and an activist, you are in the know about what’s going with people with disabilities in the Arab world, including Iraq. What’s going on there now in terms of accessibility and disability rights? A: I think there’s definitely a bright and positive future ahead for Arabs with disabilities living in the region. There are more organisations and initiatives led by and for disabled people. There are some great projects that promote tourism, employment and assistive technologies for disabled people which encourages and promotes inclusion and acceptance. Yet there is still a long way to go especially for countries that have been battered by wars and rampant corruption such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Libya.
One of the things I noticed in the Arab world is this obsession to reword the term “disabled,” despite the fact that it is a UN designated term that should be used when creating policies and programs. We also need to allow people to embrace their disability, and not run away from it as though it is something shameful.
Similarly, the media has a role to play by promoting inclusion and stop using words like “defying disability,” because disability is not the enemy. Inaccessibility is. Disability is part of who we are and we should be defying society and our surroundings to be more accessible instead of defying our disability.Q: If you were working with the Iraqi government on the issue of accessibility and disability rights, what would be your single most important advice to them? A: Iraq is party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability (UNCRPD), but is breaking every article in it. None of the laws and regulations that are in place are active or acted upon. What kind of future will disabled people in Iraq have if they are denied the right to mainstream education? Most schools refuse admission to students with disabilities, and there are only a handful of supported school settings for those students that need it. My advice is to start right there – in education, before we even talk about access to employment, support services and transportation – all of which are virtually non existent to people with disabilities in the country.