People with Different Abilities

By Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) for Iraq

Like many others in Iraq and around the world, I was inspired by the performance of Iraqi athletes at the Paralympics in London this summer. Women and men from across the country competed against the strongest, fastest, smartest and most enduring among the world’s disabled athletes, and more than held their own, bringing home two silver medals and one bronze. Official honours were bestowed on them in Iraq, validating their great determination and positive spirit in overcoming the odds imposed on them by their disabilities.

And yet, their triumph has not managed to change the humble circumstances many of the heroes of the Paralympics face back at home. Ahmed Naas, who won a silver medal in the men’s javelin throw and briefly held a world record, is an example of this. As was reported in the press last month, he is back at work at his family’s grocery stall, back to the crowded house he shares with his extended family. His moment of glory and hope for a better life have faded as he has returned to training with improvised exercise equipment.

Granted, Mr. Naas, whose disability is dwarfism, is doing better than many other Iraqis, with a source of income and a plot of land he has purchased with prize money. But he is also representative of the many highly talented and skilled men and women who live with a disability and whose ability to contribute to a prosperous and proud future for the country is stymied by the challenges they face every day.

Iraq has a higher percentage of persons with disabilities than other countries – not only persons born with disabilities, but also those who suffered disabilities later on. Three wars in as many decades and terrorist attacks have cost a large number of people their limbs, eyesight, and various physical, intellectual and mental abilities that other people take for granted. A degradation in essential services and poor medical treatment have further exacerbated the issue.

More often than not, disabled Iraqis, who come from all sectors of society, find themselves confined to domestic settings, with limited access to healthcare, education, employment and economic opportunity. Recently, I met a paraplegic who struggles immensely to navigate everyday life and does not even have a wheelchair; he does not have the means to get one.

The plight of Iraqis with intellectual disabilities or mental illness is particularly acute. Their voices are seldom heard in Iraq, and there are very few services which cater to their particular needs. Their access to public services is at times severely restricted.

Iraq’s ratification on 23 January 2012 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reflected a recognition of the importance of protecting and promoting the rights of these Iraqi citizens. It was an encouraging step forward, and the United Nations welcomes the Government’s commitment to ensuring that persons living with disabilities can fully and equally participate in every aspect of the social, economic, cultural and political life of Iraq, just as any other citizen.

However, legislation meant to ensure the implementation of the Convention is still pending, and further revisions must be made to bring it fully into line with the Convention. In particular, the law should provide for the establishment of an independent body, linked to the Independent High Commission for Human Rights, to oversee the implementation of the duties imposed by the Convention. The Government should ensure that this body is established. An inter-ministerial committee should also be created to review laws and policies.

In addition, every effort should be made to allow Iraqis with disabilities to make their voices heard in the 2013 Governorate Council elections, to ensure that their interests are appropriately represented in the country’s democratic institutions. I am encouraged by the fact that the IHEC is working with the United Nations and civil society to support full participation for disabled voters by, for example, easing procedures for vote casting and facilitating access to polling booths.

Most importantly, however, the Government should lead efforts to educate the public and raise awareness on people with disabilities, to break down barriers to their full inclusion in the political, social and economic life of Iraq. We must all join forces to change the perception that persons with disabilities deserve to be pitied. People with disabilities are simply people with different abilities – which often equal and at times far exceed those of “able” bodied people.

Faris Al-Ajeeli lifted 242 kilos at the Paralympics. I doubt many of you can do that.

There is much to admire, but nothing to pity about him.

When the approximately 1.5-2 million Iraqis with different skills and capacities are empowered as independent persons, all of Iraqi society will benefit. Let us work together to give them the opportunity to unfold their full potential, and who knows what feats they might accomplish for Iraq.