My five weeks in a wheelchair

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani
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A nasty ankle fracture put me in a wheel¬chair for more than five weeks, turning the shortest trips and simplest errands into enormous tasks. The experi¬ence did, however, offer me a different perspective on the daily challenges facing people with disabilities in my home town of Tunis. I suspect the plight of the disabled in the rest of the Arab world is not that different.

In those five weeks, I did not venture into the narrow alleyways of the Old Medina, but even the commute to work or to visit the doctor’s office and, oddly, the hospital’s emergency room itself were no easy tasks. The wheel¬chair ramps, even in the city’s newest buildings, seem to have been designed to serve more as missile launch pads than as access routes for the disabled.

There are no handicapped slots in car parks. Going to the bank once in those few weeks was one time too many. Even if helped by a companion, crossing the street to the uneven pavement and accessing the bank’s entrance was a hazardous adventure.

After five weeks, I still do not know how on Earth the handi¬capped manage to do the most basic things, such as going to the restroom. These places are not properly designed or customized to accommodate the average wheelchair.

The attitude of people you encounter makes up only a little for the inadequate infrastructure. When in close contact, the major¬ity of people seems moved to some form of embarrassed compassion. Most people feel the compulsion to help. Sometimes there are many volunteers when you don’t need them to push your wheelchair.

Often, people usefully and helpfully try to hold the temperamental elevator so you aren’t caught in the door, but the kindness of strangers cannot reshape the steep ramps or straighten out dangerously uneven sidewalks. Sometimes though, people’s reactions to the wheelchair-bound can be fairly complex.

The spectacle of you struggling to get out of a car in your wheel¬chair proves mesmerizing for some who hardly notice the face of the person engaged in the difficult maneuvers. A few don’t see you, period. You are too low in altitude to be caught by their radar screen.

Being in a wheelchair does not make me an expert on the plight of the handicapped but it makes me think that experience of the permanently disabled is probably beyond imagining by the “normal” population

Oussama Romdhani

The invisible

Perhaps, like members of ethnic and racial minorities in many societies, the disabled too can be somehow invisible. Human reflex¬es spare the “normal” majority in society, the discomfort of dealing with those whose presence itself is a challenge to their complacency-driven sense of normality.

Not too long ago, didn’t many families in the Arab world conceal their physically or mentally disa¬bled children from public view? No wonder, many Arab countries still under-report the number of disabled people in their midst. To¬day, if 15 percent of the world population is estimated to live with disability, Arab countries report a “compara¬tively low prevalence of disability, ranging from 0.4-4.3 percent of the population”.

That’s according to the UN Economic and Social Com¬mission for Western Asia (ESCWA). This under-reporting takes place despite a reasonable expectation that the Arab world has higher risk factors for disability — including wars, road accidents and medical conditions that are specific to the region.

“Rates in Arab countries must be taken with a grain of salt,” con¬cludes ESCWA. Being in a wheelchair does not make me an expert on the plight of the handicapped but it does make me think that the experience of the permanently disabled is probably beyond imagining by the “normal” population. Their needs are not sufficiently recognized, so they are more un¬likely to be addressed.

Bloated bureaucracy

They are probably the most affected by the region’s bloated bureaucracy. When undertaking the simplest transactions, they are bound to feel the suffocating weight of red tape more than eve¬rybody else. In a part of the world where almost every signature on a docu¬ment needs to be legally notarized, waiting in line or climbing the stairs in office build¬ings is an obviously huge im¬pediment for people with impaired mobility.

Such obstacles prevent the disabled from pursuing a normal pro¬fessional or educational life. In fact, employment rates for the disabled in the Arab world are estimated to be one-half to one-third that of the rest of the population. Illiteracy rates are at least double (rising to six times in certain countries) those of the general population.

That’s not to say that there aren’t laws on the books and official proclamations about helping the disabled. There are also employment quotas for the disabled, for instance 7 percent in Morocco. Much less in most other Arab countries.

However, the disabled need fewer laws and quotas than a real chance to function as normal and valued members of society. Despite all the formal pronouncements, the disabled — especially women — are still awfully marginalized. The wheelchair-bound don’t need people to push them along to their destinations as much as they need enforceable regulations that allow them to be independent and safe in their cities.

Being physically or mentally impaired in most of the Arab world today means losing your ticket to social inclusion. The disabled are probably one of the biggest still-disenfranchised minorities in the region. Reversing this situation is the just thing to do. Freedom and dignity of the disabled — and the rest of society — start there.

Oussama Romdhani is the editor-in-chief of the Arab Weekly where this oped was initially published.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page:

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