Playing Ping Pong with Disability
RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank, Apr 28 2016 (IPS) – Despite formally adopting progressive laws, such as Law Number 4, and ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability, Palestinian authorities still struggle to get beyond rhetoric when it comes to supporting the 7 to 11 per cent of the population that is affected by disability.
As the ongoing Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continues to block the development of the quasi-Palestinian state, the advancement of the rights of people with disabilities remains at the bottom of a long list of priorities that sees ‘security and defence’ firmly at the top.
In the past 30 years — with many disabilities resulting from two intifadas, ongoing clashes and three wars in Gaza — an increasing number of organisations and committees has incorporated in their mandate the advancement of the rights of people with disability and the monitoring of any violations.
But their power to hold ministries or state institutions accountable for any failings is still objectively minimal. This leaves small NGOs and individual activists in charge of raising awareness of the needs of disabled people amongst the population and the political class and to fight everyday for integration.
Disabled activists for disabled rights
Suzanne, 25, is from a village near Ramallah. She has spina bifida and from her wheelchair, she is watching a group of men and women presenting different disabilities playing table tennis.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Suzanne told IPS while waiting for her turn to play, “I don’t want charity, I want opportunities.”
Suzanne is at the Majd Sports centre, part of the Abu-Raya rehabilitation complex in Ramallah, one of the few well equipped centres run by disabled volunteers and offering sports activities tailored to the needs of disabled people.
Majd was founded in 1996, soon after the first intifada. It gave Palestine its first wheelchair basketball team and now it’s hoping to bring its table tennis team to international attention.
For young women like Suzanne, Majd Sports is a lifeline, a golden opportunity to even just get out of the house.
“In our society, people believe that if you are not walking, you are not normal,” Esham Idkaidek, Majd’s chair person, himself wheelchair-bound, told IPS. “Through sport we show the potential inherent in all of us. We want to change the way people look at us.”
It is through Amani Samara, one of the centre’s board members and fundraisers and herself in a wheelchair, that Suzanne heard of Majd Sports two years ago, before then, she recalls, she was hardly allowed outside.
“It’s a bit better now, but sometimes I still feel like I am under house arrest,” Suzanne explained, “my mother locks me up in my room to stop me from going out. She even tried to burn my wheelchair.”
Once she does make it outside the house, Suzanne faces other obstacles, from kids throwing stones at her, to staircases and curious stares. But she tries not to care. She was forced to leave school after her primary education, when bullying from her teachers became too much. For this reason alone, she explains, she is done missing out on things.
Samara supports Suzanne in her daily fights. “I often call her family to try and make them understand her wish to be active, to do things,” she told IPS. “There is very little help available here but they need to understand her needs.”
Samara hopes to create more opportunities at the centre for people like Suzanne. “We want to improve the equipment for the table tennis team and also organise workshops in jewellery making or embroidery,” she explained. But funds to make these ideas happen are not easily secured.
“The hardest part,” Samara added, “is still getting people to travel here.” In all of Palestine, Samara explained, there isn’t a single bus dedicated to the transport of wheelchair-bound passengers.
“It is our dream to get one for the centre,” Samara confessed. “Sometimes we can pay for people to come in by taxi but it’s expensive and really not easy, it’s a big obstacle for us.”
Fostering integration and independence is also the aim of another Ramallah centre, the Jasmine Charitable Society. Jasmine was founded in 2003 by a group of parents and caters for roughly 84 children and young adults with mental disabilities aged 1 to 25.
Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or autism are only some of the conditions for which the centre provides care and rehabilitation.
“The help available to these families from the ministry of health or social affairs is very limited,” Fatima Eid, the centre coordinator’s told IPS. Like the Abu-Raya centre, Jasmine functions thanks to a mix of donations, from Palestine and abroad, as well as fees.
“Our aim is to turn most of them into independent adults,” Noor Issa, a young occupational therapist told IPS. Sitting in the office is Tala, a 22 year-old with Down syndrome. In perfect English, she lived in the USA for most of her life, she explains that she loves coming to Jasmine.
“I love the teachers and I love helping them, especially when they change the babies,” she smiled shyly.
Through regular sessions of speech therapy, occupational therapy, activities to improve fine motor skills and activities of daily living, many of the students will, like Tala, come to enjoy a degree of independence, staff explained. But many will need constant support.
This means that a better network of public services needs to be available for the families. “We work hard to get disability on the government agenda, to raise awareness” explained Eid, adding “the situation is slowly improving.”
Jasmine is part of a number of committees and clusters which bring together a variety of local NGOs and unions working with and representing the disabled. But in the absence of a working legislative body and accountable institutions, change is still hard to achieve.
Undeterred by the long road ahead, Issa, the young therapist, is ready to get back to work. “I love being able to help these kids get better,” she said. “Last week, a child managed to count to 10. We had been working with him for so long, we wanted to throw a party,” she laughed. “It’s a great feeling.”
The hope at the grassroots level is that government and authorities can soon begin to support proper implementation of the current laws and conventions adopted and really assist civil society in integrating disability into Palestinian society.