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6 December 2018

How to normalise the way we look towards people with disablities

By: Daoud Kuttab
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It is not clear what Aya Aghabi expected when she called Daniel Sharaiha, chief human resources officer and customer experience at Bank Al Etihad. Aghabi, founder of “Accessible Jordan”, an online guide to places accessible around Amman and touristic destinations in Jordan, explained to the bank official the fact that many of their branches are missing the basic infrastructure to make them accessible to people with disabilities.

As Sharaiha explained at a UNESCO-sponsored event on the International Day of Disabled Persons, the call hit him like a thunderbolt. "We have always prided ourselves as a progressive bank that caters to the needs of our clients. We hire three times as many women as most institutions, so the idea that our facilities were not accessible totally caught me off guard." Sharaiha continued telling the august crowd of people with disabilities, diplomats and human rights activists that he called a meeting of the bank’s top officials and engineers. "Not only was this a blind spot for me," he said, “but even our chief engineer, whose mother is disabled and uses a wheelchair, never even thought of making banks accessible to the disabled.” Within a short time and with a relative moderate cost, according to Sharaiha, all bank facilities became properly fitted to allow people with disabilities accessibility without any problems.

The story of Bank Al Etihad is not unique. People and organisations have a blind spot when it comes to making sure that more than a tenth of the population can move without the need of external help. Accessibility is not only about putting ramps or ensuring that the elevator is wide enough for wheelchairs, it also means that people with weak visual abilities or those who are totally unable to see can maneuver. Colour coating floors and paving them with different kinds of surfaces can make a big difference in helping people with visual impairments maneuver better, according to Hadeel Abu Soufeh, an activist in the rights of people with disabilities.

Issa Ghammoh, secretary general of the Ministry of Tourism, committed to making tourist locations accessible, noting that if about 12 per cent of the world's population lives with some form of disability, it means that 12 per cent of tourists are also disabled and, thus, their needs must be addressed.

The problem of inaccessibility is not limited to older buildings. Some contractors cheat on approved blueprints in compliance with accessibility codes and many new buildings are not compliant with the codes because builders attempt to save money by not complying with the laws and municipal codes.

Addressing the needs of people with disabilities requires a huge change of the way people think. While much can be done by legislations, the bigger challenge is attitudes. Jordan's 2017 law on rights of people with disability is very progressive, but the key is bridging the gap between the law and its implementation.

Raising awareness on the rights of people with disabilities is a continuous need. Change in the mindset needs to begin at home, at school and at religious institutions. School curricula still contain stories often depicting people with disabilities as second-class citizens, with images of a blind man in the street as needing charity rather than respecting people with disabilities as part of the society and encouraging the need to merge them with the rest of the population.

Educational institutions have a huge responsibility not only in what they teach, but also in how they react to students with disabilities, who must be merged with able-bodied students, according to the new law.

Employers at all levels must also implement the law that stipulates that at least 4 per cent of the total of their employees must be people with disabilities.

To overcome the blind spot that the bank officials experienced, we need to see more people with disabilities wherever we go. Normalising people with disabilities will go a long way to overcoming these stereotypes and ensuring that all people are treated equally, irrespective of whether they have physical disabilities or not.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net

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