Citizens With Disabilities Long for Independence

October 26, 2011 01:02 AM
By Marie Dhumieres
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: In recent months, the ministries of health and social affairs have been renewing their calls to implement the disability rights law of 2000, which
is designed to improve the lives of those with disabilities.

But a simple trip with Rita Maalouf demonstrates how little of the law has made it off the paper and onto the street.

Maalouf splits her time between a foyer she shares with five other women with disabilities and her parents’ house, both in Sin al-Fil.

She says she spends most of her time at the foyer because it’s the only place where it is possible for her to be completely independent.

“In our home we live without any help,” she says, explaining that the ground-floor apartment was designed to be fully accessible for the disabled.

But outside the house, it’s another story. Although two of the foyer’s inhabitants drive, the municipality refuses to give them a second parking spot in
front of the house as “it wouldn’t be fair” to other residents of the small alleyway, says Maalouf.

This means that every day, Maalouf, who works in Jbeil as an executive secretary at the organization CRC, which works with those with disabilities, has
to wheel herself for 10 minutes to reach her car.

On the way, she points at the sidewalk: “Look, no ramp here, no ramp there … One time I told a guy at the municipality I would bring him pictures of all
the locations without ramps.”

Although some sidewalks are equipped with ramps, Maalouf says many of them are useless. “This is way too steep,” she says, the front wheels start lifting off the ground.

After some 200 meters, we reach Maalouf’s car. “You see how far it is,” she says.

Maalouf installed a special $1,000 lever system to replace her car’s gas and brake pedals and learned how to drive as part of a CRC program.

Before starting the engine, she makes the sign of the cross. “I’m very religious,” she says, adding that she’s in a choir. That’s why it’s especially painful
for her to show, some 50 meters later, how the nearby church is not accessible. A ramp has been installed, but a small ditch just in front prevents access.

After the church, Maalouf insists on visiting the most absurd ramp she’s seen, at a bank where she has an account. The bank installed an access ramp but just under it, there remains stair, defeating the purpose of the ramp.

“When we tell them how stupid this is, they say ‘We can help you’ … But I don’t want help, I want to do it on my own,” she says.

“Now I’m 45. I’m tired of asking every time, ‘Please put my wheelchair in the truck, please I want to go out.’ I’m tired. That’s why I want better accessibility so I stop needing help.”

A few streets away, Maalouf points to a ramp installed on one end of a sidewalk. “But look, [there’s] not [one] on the other end,” she laughs.

Through the eyes of someone who uses a wheelchair, the city begins to looks like an obstacle course.

With the exception of a clothing store near the foyer, which bought a ramp “just because they love us,” most shops are not accessible to Maalouf.

“Look here,” she says, as she passes a bakery with many stairs at the entrance. “I have to stay outside and scream ‘May I have …”

Once, she says, she had her eyebrows done in the street as she couldn’t access the beauty salon. When she can enter shops, other complications often arise.

Maalouf’s friend and roommate Therese Akl explains how fitting rooms in most shops are not big enough to accommodate a wheelchair. “So we try on clothes outside, with everybody staring at us,” she says bitterly.

Akl also spends most of her time at the foyer. There is an elevator at her parents’ apartment, but stairs in front of it and it would cost $5,000 to install
a six meter electronic ramp.

Living with a disability means more expenses, whether it’s the cost of a special driving system or a wheelchair.

The government provides a basic $400 wheelchair every four years, but Akl can’t use her hands. She was only able to buy the $5,000 electric wheelchair she needs through a donation from a Canadian association.

Their roommate Hanan Hilal, requires a breathing apparatus, which she rents for $300 a month. And although Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour recently agreed to make disabled people’s access to health care a “priority,” Hilal says that when she recently presented her disabled ID at a Beirut public hospital, which should grant her free admission, she still had to pay LL1.5 million out of her own pocket.

As Maalouf, Hilal and Akl sit discussing the issues in the living room, their friend Marie Farkouh enters the house with good news. “I finally found an
apartment!” she says.

“Can we come visit?” they ask. Farkouh stops smiling. “No,” she says, and goes on to explain that there is no elevator in the building.

“You see, we can’t even go see our friend’s new apartment,” Akl says.

“Even the easiest thing becomes complicated for them; it’s like they are ostracized from society, like if they weren’t humans. The country doesn’t see them as citizens,” Farkouh says.

Maalouf says one priority for improving the lives of people with disabilities is to change the way others see them, although she acknowledges that the situation has improved somewhat in the past decade.

“I’m a girl like you but I have a wheelchair. I forget about it, but society reminds me.”

She says even her family first assumed she wouldn’t be able to do things on her own. “Twenty years ago my father was telling me ‘Don’t go to university, we can help you.’ No, I want to work and see how I can live my life.”

Maalouf was with a “wonderful man” for a year, a foreigner who has since moved back to his country.

“He didn’t see the wheelchair,” she smiles. But in general she says, it’s “so difficult to meet a partner.”

“I met this guy last month who was OK to meet in the car but didn’t want to go out with me. He was saying, ‘How will people look at me if I’m with a disabled girl? I told him ‘Well, just leave now.’”

“The most important thing,” she continues, “is that people accept our disability. I want to say to the world, ‘Look at me, not at my disability. I’m here,
I can drive, I can work, the only difference between us is that you use your feet when I use my wheels. That’s it.’”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2011, on page 3.

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