By Karen Saba
This is my first International Day of Persons with Disability since getting home from a five-month mission in Beirut, Lebanon, where I helped eight other NGOs make their water points, toilets and hygiene facilities more inclusive for people with disabilities, older people, and the vulnerable.
As a woman who is a native Arabic speaker with a “CP (cerebral palsy) accent,” this was an opportunity to not only do the job, but to show Lebanese people, and Syrian refugees the professional potential for a woman with a disability.
The job was the easy part. I’ve worked on inclusion for 25 years, and mostly in the Middle East. The barriers of making things inclusive are not new to me. The environment in a place like Lebanon was not new to me. Over the years, I became accustom to the attitudes of the local population toward people with disabilities.
One day, on my way to work, I noticed that the sidewalks were being renovated. I was excited and was willing to speak with the construction workers about making sure the pathway was accessible. To my surprise, on my way home, I saw that one of the corners was accessible as it had a curb-cut. I was thrilled, until the next day when I saw that the other corner was inaccessible. What a shocker!
So that’s when the attitudes of the people need to be understood. When I asked the barber about the inaccessible curb in front of his shop, he indicated that he disliked the curb-cut because it meant that people would park directly in front of his place of business and block the entrance. But when I asked the convenience store owner on the other side of the street why he accepted the curb-cut, he said it was easier for his deliveries. The fact is, there is no oversight by local municipalities to monitor such renovations even if it's in a public space.
As you can see, things are not always black and white. There are a lot of shades of gray in the Middle East. The perception about people with disabilities need to change. For instance, I was asked more times than I can count why I left the comfort of my home and family in the U.S. to work in the Middle East. My answer was always because people need to interact more with professionals with disabilities. It’s all about attitudes.
That’s why Handicap International is working in places like Lebanon to challenge these misconceptions. My mission with HI was primarily to help Syrian refugees to live in dignity. Throughout my time in Lebanon, I visited many refugees living in camps. Meeting others with disabilities was never an easy task, especially when I met children with cerebral palsy like me. And there were a lot. In fact, I would joke with my staff that one day we would take over!
One little girl with CP who stood out to me wasn’t able to walk because her legs were spastic. Her mother was wondering how she could take care of her daughter. She had rehabilitation services in Syria, but when the family came to Lebanon, these were lost. Of course, part of HI’s mission is to provide rehabilitation services, which we did. But at the same time, I encouraged the girl and the mother not to give up hope and made sure to emphasize to both of them that the girl is normal. After all, what is normal?
I know, first hand, that the impression I left on this family is immense. I experienced it myself when I encountered my first professional with CP at the age of 16.
But enough sobbing. Let’s talk about rock and roll. When I was in Beirut, I learned that one of my favorite bands, Pink Martini, was playing. Buying the ticket to the show was easy. Getting there safely was another story.
The concert was held on the grounds of Beiteddine, an old castle outside of Beirut. I was a bit nervous in terms of accessibility. I know I can push the envelope, but how far? I followed the advice of the ticket vendor, and took a private bus that all the people in Beirut use when they go to concerts there. I was pretty shocked! The bus was really nice; people were courteous and helped me on it.
But still I was anxious: would the open-air theater be accessible? Would the bus park near the venue? I was right to be nervous, because the bus didn’t park near the venue due to security issues. But luckily, thanks to my self-advocacy skills, wit and native Arabic language, I was able to get the security person to drive me closer. The Boy Scouts were helping usher, and I was able to get to my seat. I had a good time. On the way back, an ambulance took me to the bus, and I made it home.
Today is the International Day of Persons with Disability, and I feel so fortunate to be back in the U.S.. I know that a lot of work remains to be done to change attitudes so that people with disabilities have the right of self-determination. I also know that the rights and the services that every American takes for granted here in the United States should become the norm globally. This is only a short insight into my life working in the Middle East, but I have been doing this for the last 20 years. And I hope that, other people with disabilities, along with HI, can work to promote a more inclusive and just society for years to come.
Karen Saba worked in Lebanon for HI as a WASH and Inclusion Coordinator from June to October 2017. Her career has taken her to 20 countries, including Iraq and Libya. A native of Egypt, she moved with her family to the U.S. in the 1980s.