Initiatives seek to assimilate the disabled

Several recent initiatives have aimed to give improved opportunities to Syrians with disabilities. These include the country’s role as host for this year’s Special Olympics, a disabled-oriented job fair in Damascus in September, disabled-friendly infrastructure upgrades and new requirements in the labour law for employing disabled people.

“The situation has changed a lot in recent years,” Secretary General of the National Council for Disability Affairs Hazim Ibrahim said. “While before, support of the disabled was based on individual initiatives, Syria is now taking a more systematic and concentrated approach to the subject.”

From September 25 until October 3, Syria hosted the seventh Special Olympics for the Middle East and North Africa (SOMENA), the regional games for people with intellectual disabilities. With more than 2,000 athletes from 23 countries participating in 15 sporting events, this was the biggest such event since its launch in 1999.

“This event isn’t only about sport,” Ibrahim said. “It’s about building the self-esteem of people with intellectual disabilities. Families that used to feel embarrassed having a disabled member are now starting to enquire how they could help their disabled member to practice a sport. People have started to realise the potential of people with disabilities.”

To better integrate people with disabilities into society, SOMENA also organised the Syrian Job Fair for People with Disabilities on September 25 and 27.

A signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Syria has also recently taken measures to make the country more disabled-friendly. It established the National Council for Disabilities Affairs in 2004. The council endorsed a national plan focusing on the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in 2008, drafted by AMAAL, The Syrian Organisation for the Disabled.

The plan includes preparing a building code to make the country accessible for the disabled and importing handicap-accessible buses by the end of 2011. So far, the most visible effects of the plan are audible and tactile signals that have appeared on traffic lights throughout the capital.

Further, according to the new labour law that went into effect in April, 2 percent of jobs in every company that has more than 50 workers should go to disabled people.

This was published in Syria Today magazine

Breaking Down the Barriers (Disabled in Syria)

A lack of street ramps, handicap-accessible buildings and low-floor buses makes Syria decidedly disabled unfriendly. An ambitious plan by civil and public organisations aims to change that.


Hazim Ibrahim, a translator in his thirties who was left wheelchair bound after an early-childhood accident, says his mind is like “Google Maps”.

“I know by heart which streets are ramped and on which ones cars park and block the way,” Ibrahim said.

Venturing out independently in Damascus requires him to maintain an encyclopaedia-like knowledge of his home city’s physical layout. Even then, getting around is a struggle. Damascus may have ranked number seven on the New York Times list of top destinations for 2010, but for the mobility impaired, moving around the city is a daily nightmare. Gutters are deep and footpaths are narrow and uneven. Elevators are rare, as are building ramps and accessible public transportation. Cars park wherever they can, creating an ever-changing obstacle course.

“I can’t use public transportation,” Ibrahim said. “Riding minibuses in a wheelchair is simply impossible and I can’t ride regular buses unless passengers volunteer to carry me in and out of them.”

Disabled-friendly plan

Frustrated with the plight of the disabled in Syria, Ibrahim decided to take action. He joined the National Council for Disabilities Affairs (NCDA), a joint council staffed by representatives from six Syrian ministries and several NGOs, in addition to a number of experts and people with disabilities. It has been lobbying for the rights of the disabled since 2004.

Syria is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008. The convention aims to protect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. Specifically, it demands that governments take measures to ensure disabled people can live and move about independently by ensuring that roads and buildings provide disabled access.

AMAAL, The Syrian Organization for the Disabled, is also playing a leading role in promoting the rights of the disabled. Established by Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad in 2002, AMAAL drafted a national plan focusing on the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in 2007. Endorsed by NCDA the following year, its effects have started to become visible in the past few months, with audible and tactile signals appearing on traffic lights throughout the capital.

Traffic lights are only part of the plan, Tarif Bakdash, general secretary of NCDA, said. The organisation has also prepared a building code to make Syria more disabled-friendly. The code, which will be binding by the end of the year, requires all buildings and public venues, such as parks, to provide wheelchair ramps, accessible toilets and elevators with audible controls for the hearing impaired and tactile controls – such as the Braille reading system – for the visually impaired. For its part, the Ministry of Transport says it aims to import 1,000 handicap-accessible buses by the end of 2011 and it is working to ensure that 25 percent of the public bus fleet provided by private companies will eventually provide wheelchair access.

The over-arching goal of all these efforts is to remove the factors that inhibit the life of the disabled in Syria, Bakdash said.

“My poor sight disables me from seeing clearly, but with my glasses on that’s no longer the case,” he said. “In this sense it’s not my poor sight, but rather the lack of glasses, which disables me. Failing to remove the obstacles that people with visual, hearing and moving impairments face in Syria is what actually disables them from living like anyone else.”

The workload confronting organisations like AMAAL and the NCDA is immense. A case-in-point is the lack of accurate statistics on the number of people with disabilities in Syria. To provide a more comprehensive picture, the NCDA is in the process of carrying out a nationwide survey of the country’s disabled community to evaluate their needs and better tailor government policy to meet them.

“We need to know the numbers and kinds of disabilities Syrians suffer from and where are they located,” Bakdash said.

Past government policies aimed at assisting the disabled have not always been as successful as originally intended. For example, the government passed legislation instructing private companies that employ more than 50 workers to offer 2 percent of their positions to persons with disabilities. Public institutions must offer 4 percent. But despite such legislation, many disabled people cannot pursue employment because their mobility challenges prevent them from attending school. This then makes them unqualified for suitable work opportunities.

“It’s the ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma – a vicious circle,” Ibrahim said. “Many people with disabilities are poorly educated so they can’t find a job. But it’s the difficulty of movement and the lack of an accessible educational system which prevents them from getting a proper education in the first place. But there’s no use sitting and crying over the past. We have to take measurable steps towards a more accessible Syria.”

Preventing Future Disabilities

Rami Khalil, executive director of AMAAL, said the need to improve access for the disabled was particularly acute in Syria since he believes the country has a particularly large disabled population.

“Marriage between relatives, poor health care for mothers and pregnant women, irregular vaccinations, malnutrition and a high accident rate make Syria a big disabled-generating country,” he said.

In addition to making the country more disabled friendly, NCDA is also planning to decrease the number of Syrians with disabilities. A key part of this strategy is to improve the safety of homes and workplaces to reduce the number of accidents which can result in mobility impairments. While NCDA admits that change will take time, people like Ibrahim are hopeful that things will get better for the country’s disabled.

“It will probably take another two generations for things to change, but I’m optimistic,” he said. “A disability lies in the environment and not in the person. If you remove the barriers, people with disabilities will become full participants in society. But they need to be empowered. They can’t dig their way through life alone.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Interview with Argentine’s Laura Bari, director of Antoine

A sensitive and poetical portrait of the life of Antoine, a five years old blind detective boy who swims, paints and drives a car.  He is integrated into the regular school system in Montreal, with unprecedented success.

“Point of View” sat down with Laura Bari to find out more about the film.

Laura Bari and Antoine

Laura Bari and Antoine

While a documentary, “Antoine” is to a certain extent a fiction film; it’s the brainchild of Antoine’s imagination and dreams. What was the idea behind making this film?

When an object exists, it’s reality. When a person exists, it’s reality and I believe that when an idea exists, it’s also reality. Unlike documentaries, fiction films are invented. But inventions, at the end, are a recreation of reality because all the elements of an invention already exist so to invent or imagine something all we need is the ability to combine real elements to recreate reality.

In Antoine, we get into this little boy’s mind. The film is built on a dialogue between what he can see through his imagination and what we can.

In your film we see Antoine experimenting audio-visual arts like painting and music, playing detective and searching for clues along with other sighted children. These are activities that many blind Syrians don’t take part in. How important it is to integrate art to childhood in general and to that of the blind in particular?

Children are educated in a very rational way that destroys their creativity. When I met Antoine for the first time I asked him “what do you like the most”? He said “I would like to drive a car.” So I gave him the keys to my car. He was astonished! “What else?” I asked him. “I want a mobile.” So I gave him my mobile and told him detectives drive cars and answer mobile calls, so why don’t we play detective? “It’s impossible!” He thought. But he could make it! Through playing detective I wanted to break this boundary between reality and imagination to set him free.

I wanted him to learn to overcome his boundaries. Just like the African slaves who were taken to Brazil. Their legs were heavily chained which prevented them from dancing so they created salsa and merengue.

Creativity is an association between things you don’t associate. In the case of Antoine, he painted with colors that he couldn’t see. But still he could imagine them by associating the colors with things he knew. Orange and green, for example, are his favorites because he can taste them when eating oranges and lemons.

Although blind, Antoine was capable of engaging in all the activities other children did. He plays sport and he even took part in the schools run race by sticking to a cord. This helps him gain more confidence.

Antoine used to fear cat and dogs. But at the end of the movie he touched a horse for the first time in his life. And it’s because art that he gained this confidence.

Some people criticized the film for being too long and repetitive. What do you think?

I wanted the structure of the film to be similar to that of a 6 year-old child’s personality. I’ve been studying the structure of personality and the influence of art and immigration on it. At this age children can switch from reality to imagination in a minute. You scream so they imagine you as a monster. Next minute you tell them let’s go eat so you become their mother or aunt. In my film I wanted to celebrate children’s ability to switch between the two because once you grow older you can’t do it anymore as people would consider you schizophrenic. Furthermore, children keep repeating the same things so that’s why I repeated some scenes because I wanted the film to be coherent with the child’s rhythm.

“Antoine” is one of the rare documentaries were the characters take part in the editing process. Antoine collaborated to the soundtrack creation by capturing and choosing sounds making the film more than a simple portrait of him. What was the editing process like?

He worked with me all along. He was my sound man and my technician. He put the pieces of the camera and the microphone together. He could put the batteries faster than me. In some cases I even let him take decisions.

Antoine had a rare thirst to learn. We should give him and other kids like him the possibility to do so. We have to treat blind children like kids not like sick people. They are different but who isn’t? We are all different and it’s our job to find a way to integrate.

This article  was published in “Point of View” DOX BOX 2010 documentary film festival’s bulletin.