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.