Wheelchair distribution program in northern Iraq: Creating new possibilities for people with disabilities

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"For a handicapped person, a wheelchair is not only a means for mobility, it is the world itself."

Northern Iraq -- Between September and December 2007, Counterpart International and the Wheelchair Foundation provided 1,400 new wheelchairs to disabled residents in northern Iraq, allowing individuals disabled by conflict, disease and birth defects to move more freely as they work, pray, and go about their daily lives, and just as importantly they have an enhanced sense of pride and self-reliance.

The Ministry of Health has estimated the total number of disabled in Iraq to be over 1 million. These include not only those born disabled but also the victims of the conflicts that have afflicted the country in the past 30 years, beginning with the Iran-Iraq war and continuing with the present-day conflict, counter-insurgency and legacy of landmines and other unexploded ordnances. The physically disabled of Iraq must endure a lack of mobility, the inability to financially support themselves and their families, a lack of access to social services (health care, education, etc.), and the general stigma that they are no longer contributing members of society.

In July and August 2007, six 40-foot containers of new wheelchairs, provided by the Wheelchair Foundation and valued at $106,610.80, were delivered to Iraq. Counterpart's network of Iraqi NGOs played an invaluable role in both identifying recipients and undertaking the distribution of the wheelchairs to them. Counterpart also obtained needs lists of physically disabled patients from hospitals and health care clinics serving women and children in the northern Iraqi provinces of Erbil, Dohuk, and Suleimaniyah. Finally, Counterpart conducted its own community outreach initiatives to physically disabled residents in and around Erbil, many of whom were refugees and IDPs who were resettled in houses constructed by Counterpart during the past several years.

It is difficult to overstate the importance to and impact of, these new wheelchairs on the lives of the recipients. As one beneficiary noted to Counterpart staff, "For a handicapped person, a wheelchair is not only a means for mobility, it is the world itself." The benefits for the Iraqis who received new wheelchairs include, but are not limited to: increased and dependable mobility from a new and well-built wheelchair; a reduction of the social stigma surrounding disabled Iraqis who often have to rely on old crutches or self-constructed devices to move around; and an enhanced sense of pride and self-reliance among the recipients.

This wheelchair distribution program is the latest in a series of projects that Counterpart International has implemented in Iraq since April 2003 to expand the range of services and resources available to the disabled by distributing wheelchairs and other equipment, building the capacity of Iraqi NGOs focused on meeting the needs of the disabled, and creating long-term job opportunities for disabled citizens.

The Wheelchair Foundation has its own distinguished record of service to disabled citizens of the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. The Wheelchair Foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to deliver a wheelchair to every child, teen and adult who needs one but cannot afford one - bringing new independence to those deprived of mobility by war, disease, accident, natural disaster or advanced age. To date, they have sent over 650,000 wheelchairs to more than 150 countries around the world.