Issue No.
137, September 2009 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Working with people with disabilities and their families through home visits organised by the Community Based Rehabilitation Programme (CBR).
Recreational day for children with disabilities and their families on the occasion of the Palestinian Childs Day, organised by Farah Rehabilitation Center.
Disability prevention and early detection and intervention, organised by the Community Based Rehabilitation Programme (CBR)

Disability in Palestine: Realities and Perspectives
By Dr. Allam Jarar
It is more than a decade since Palestinian society started to actively discuss the social dimensions of disability and to become aware of new approaches towards the rehabilitation process as a rights issue at the very core of human rights.

A number of years have passed since the first Intifada, when radical changes in the rehabilitation sector started to present themselves. New actors in the sector added a new dimension to the concept of disability. Those actors were the heroes of our struggle against the Israeli occupation and thus the precious asset of our national and human values and the patriotic legacy of Palestinians.

The rehabilitation sector in Palestine began to depart from the old traditional ways of interacting with people with disabilities, who were seen as being the object of charity and religious obligation, to a new concept that is based on rights and equal opportunities. At the time when there was no national government, Palestinian NGOs and charities took the lead in providing the needed services for disabled persons and tried to cope with the newly arising problems and challenges.

The traditional approach to disabled persons prevailed at the time and social stigma characterised the attitude of the whole community, which has been reflected in the priorities of the social agenda. People with disability were completely isolated from society and considered the lowest on the traditional social ladder within the existing patriarchal conservative societal structure. They were discriminated against in all aspects of life, especially in the fields of education and employment, in addition to the fact that having a normal social life was not easy. In this respect women suffered the most, being victims of double or triple discrimination.

A window of opportunity for disabled persons in the areas of health, education, and other social services was almost nonexistent. Aside from the limited services provided by charities and NGOs there was no social support system that could help them cope with their challenges.

According to a study conducted by the Institute of Community Health at Birzeit University in the early nineties, fewer than 10 percent of people with disability in Palestine had access to rehabilitation services either due to the unavailability or prohibitive cost of those services or out of negligence and ignorance as a result of the existing social stigma.

Palestinian NGOs have started a process of extensive analysis of the realities around them and have begun to formulate new policies based on evidence and research. This reality has contributed to the development of a national coordination structure for rehabilitation in cooperation and partnership with people with disabilities.

As an outcome of this process, new trends in understanding disability from a social and citizens’ rights perspective have begun to appear and a massive debate on the roles of service providers in contrast to the role of disabled peoples’ organisations has intensified.

It was obvious that the results of this debate - mainly in the NGO sector and among some interest groups working in the field of disability, including the participation of some representatives from Palestinian academia and the donor community, such as Diakonia and NAD - have led to the conclusion that the ultimate goal of the rehabilitation process is to achieve full social integration of disabled persons into their communities.

The establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 has brought yet another dimension to the scene. Another round of public debate has started again, however with different types of questions and different dynamics in the process. The main points of the discussion have centred on policy matters and the division of roles between civil society organisations and the government.

In 1999 Palestinians were proud to formulate the most progressive legislation bill on disability compared with other countries in the region. It was a moment of triumph when the disability law was passed by the legislative council with an overwhelming vote. Since then Palestine has been able to say with full confidence that the disability rights law (number four) was and still is a sign of respect of citizens’ rights and basic human dignity for people with disabilities as full and equal humans. The law was set to become the reference and guide for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in society.

Having said that, life is not as bright as it appears although the law is there and it reflects a certain level of maturity in approaching disability, dealing with it as a human rights matter. Consecutive Palestinian governments have had neither the political will nor the courage to start translating the articles of the law into real practical steps or to apply them at the policy level through all ministries. 

The recent census has revealed some striking figures amongst the population of the disabled according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). The disability rate as appears in 2007 is 5.3 percent of the total population based on the classification of disability that has been agreed upon by the technical committee of the census, whereas the PCBS revealed that the percentage of disability in the census conducted for families in 2006 was around 2.7 percent in the Palestinian territories. This discrepancy is probably due to the different classification system used by PCBS for disability in the two censuses. The census of 2007 shows that less than 20 percent of working-age disabled (according to ILO criteria) are employed, whereas almost 80 percent of them have no jobs; 55 percent have had no education whatsoever; and more than 70 percent of the disabled have had access to rehabilitation and other types of services. Those figures indicate without any doubt that discrepancy and discrimination between the so-called “abled” and disabled are the major colours of the picture in our society.

Despite all the achievements reached in the field of disability, there is still a long way to go for those who look for real change in the social agenda and life conditions of people with disability. Palestine is a good example of real change in the situation and position of persons with disability in the society. The question remains whether this change can genuinely affect peoples’ lives and whether the rights-based approach to disability can be translated from slogans and articles to hard facts and realities that can make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.

Dr. Allam Jarar is director of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society’s rehabilitation programme in the West Bank and Gaza and a steering committee member at the Palestinian NGO network.
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