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Organizations working on disability in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.09.2009:

Disability in Palestine

By Dr. Kamal Abu Qamar

Unlike the situation in previous years, the issue of disability – in Palestine, in general, and in the Gaza Strip, in particular – has been on the top of everyone’s agenda: the General Union for the Disabled, non-governmental organisations, and international organisations such as Diakonia/NAD, Handicap International, WHO, and various local government ministries in Gaza.

Structured rehabilitation programmes in Gaza started a few decades ago and have been built on various models such as Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) – Gaza has been the pioneer of this model since 1990 – Institutionalized Rehabilitation (IH), and outreach programmes. Some 70 organisations are known to be working in the field of disability since the recent war. However, the pioneer actors in the field of CBR are the National Society for Rehabilitation (NSR), which works in the southern and central zones as well as in Gaza City, and the Medical Relief Society, which works in the north and east of Khan Younis.

To enforce the spirit of cooperation, the NSR and the Medical Relief Society agreed to consolidate their available database on disability in the Gaza Strip, so that the first unified report was issued in May 2009. The report noted that the highest percentage of people with disabilities is in the Gaza governorate (28 percent), followed by Khan Younis (25 percent), and Rafah, the lowest (10.2 percent). For those under 18 years old, it is 25.8 percent and for adults, 74.2 percent; 45.5 percent are female and 54.5 percent are male. With regard to disability type, vision impairment represents 33.8 percent and physical disability, 30.9 percent. However, 14.4 percent have multiple disabilities.

The focus of the coordinated efforts among like-minded actors was on developing the available database on international scientific criteria, creating a national database and services mapping, developing specific programmes for people with disabilities, addressing gender issues, reinforcing Labor Law No. 4/1999, and advocating for inclusive education and social integration.

On the other hand, lobby groups composed of people with disabilities, in coordination with concerned organisations, have been playing a significant role in advocating for basic rights either in education, employment, or in other related social policies. Various methods of advocacy include media communication, meeting with representatives from government ministries, meeting with disability cluster groups, and marching in front of international agencies to commemorate relevant anniversaries and events.

Unfortunately, this year, people with disabilities who reside in northern Gaza, Gaza City, and marginalised areas in the central zone, in particular, have witnessed the most devastating life circumstances ever. Even rescue efforts were taboo during the recent Israeli aggression; neither the International Red Cross nor hospital ambulances were permitted to reach the areas of military operations to rescue the causalities, but rather they were directly targeted. Regardless of type of disability, gender, or age, the Israeli military usually bombards civilians wherever they are, ignoring international law and leaving behind a huge toll of casualties, including a new generation of people with disabilities. It is estimated that approximately 20 to 25 percent of injured cases have become permanently disabled; the majority suffer from physical handicaps.

In the absence of a unified source for statistical information, data on disability depends on the research of specific local organisations. For instance, the National Society for Rehabilitation has identified some 248 new cases of disability due to the war, 80 percent are male and 20 percent female, which represent approximately 5 percent of the total number of injured cases (5,000), and 19.6 percent of the screened injured cases (1,261) so far. The incidence of physical disability due to the Israeli attacks is estimated at 80.2 percent: visual impairment, 10 percent; hearing impairment, 5 percent; and other disabilities, including behaviour disorders, intellectual disability, and speech impairment, 4.8 percent.

Normally, people with disabilities face various challenges in their striving for basic human rights such as employment and education; but this year, unfortunately, they have been burdened by a new trauma. For example, an elderly disabled woman who lives in the north-west of Gaza was left alone at home to face her harsh destiny after the family had escaped for protection. A military bulldozer destroyed the house while she was still inside. She was the victim of double discrimination, being both a woman and disabled.

In another horrible instance, a number of disabled people came under siege and were attacked as they were on their way to seek a safe refuge from the bombardment. Some of these people were killed and others were further disabled due to their injuries. Life is harrowing for everyone in Gaza, especially those with disabilities. At night, when the body should be resting and restoring itself, people young and old, male and female, disabled or not, experience nightmares, sleeping disturbances, and anxiety.

This year, the needs of people with disabilities in Gaza are different. It is not about emergency needs such as assistive devices. Rather, the urgent need is for social integration, the restoration of dignity, resilience, and self-confidence. Some like-minded actors have implemented a number of emergency recovery intervention programmes to meet the basic needs and priorities of people who have recently become disabled because of the war. The NSR, with the generous contribution of the Swedish International Development and Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), and the management of Diakonia/NAD, launched ten integrative summer camps at the seashore, where some 1,000 persons (35 percent were people with disabilities, 30 percent were family members, and 35 percent were non-disabled friends) enjoyed 20 days of lively and interesting activities. The participants’ wonderful smiles revealed their growth in self-confidence, creativity, and hope for life.

Nevertheless, the critical question remains unchanged: When will the conscience of the international community be awakened to recognise its responsibility towards the Palestinians, in general, and people with disabilities, in particular? The will of people with disabilities in Gaza is stronger than the bombs of the enemies, and they will persevere in their struggle to take their rightful place as leaders in society – at universities, in the arena of literature, music, and art, and even among the decision-making elite.

Dr. Kamal Abu Qamar is the general director of the National Society for Rehabilitation.

TWIP September 2009

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