Story by Michele Richinick // Photos by Ryan Tyler Payne
AMMAN, Jordan – Swoosh. Click. Clack. Tap.
Maha Barghouthi’s tennis paddle sends the ball across the table to her coach, the sounds echoing throughout the multi-purpose training hall at the Jordan Paralympic Committee in the Sport City region of Amman. Since 2000, Barghouthi, 48, has earned one gold and two bronze medals in wheelchair table tennis at the Paralympic Games.
“People in the street used to say, ‘Poor lady,’ and looked at me like I was from Mars,” said Barghouthi, who has always used a wheelchair. “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.’”
With crowded cities, uneven sidewalks and chaotic traffic, Jordan is far from ideal for people with disabilities. Since 2007, the Jordanian government and the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities (HCAPD), which acts as a liaison between the government and civil society, are working on strategies to improving the lives of these people, said Adnan Al Aboudy, empowerment and awareness coordinator for HCAPD. But there is still much to do.
Attempted improvements surrounding people with disabilities in Jordan began with sports in 1981 when the Jordan Sports Federation for the Handicapped (JSFH), which supervises disabled sports in the country, was established. Then, a 1993 Law for the Welfare of Disabled Persons affirmed disabled citizens’ rights and established the National Council for the Welfare of Disabled Persons.
The United Nations 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 aimed at accessibility for people with disabilities.
“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.”
The plan was implemented in two stages. From 2007 until 2009, 10 initiatives were adopted including addressing issues related to higher education, family involvement, accessibility, rehabilitation and violence awareness, Al Aboudy said.
“Now we are talking about different single issues. We changed the methodology of how to treat a person with a disability,” he said. “[The strategies] include everything that is important. We don’t have a biggest problem.”
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 on March 23, 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. After the ratification, there has been more awareness of rights and advocacy.”
But there has been little effort made to alter infrastructure in a way that accommodates people’s special needs.
“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 years old that led to paralysis in both of his legs. He has been competitively powerlifting for seven years. “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.”
Eighty-five percent of people with disabilities live in developing countries, and therefore are doubly disadvantaged by poverty and disability, according to the UN.
“Most of the laws have to deal with gender issues in the Middle East. Raising awareness of people for everything, gender and disabilities, in Jordan is the most important thing,” 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.”
If the current strategy doesn’t succeed, people with disabilities will continue to fight for their rights in Jordan, Qader said.
“We are heading toward being like others,” said Ismail Zaghmouri, a Braille auditor for the Friendship Association of the Blind, who is blind. “We hate the concept of sponsorship. We need to be equal with our society, that is our main goal.”