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Sat. June 15, 2024
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Afghanistan: Never Mind the Disabled
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By Fahim Khairy Nine years ago, when Taliban rule came to an end in Afghanistan, men, women, and children - old, young, poor and rich - were all delighted to see a bright future, from its first day. Most people remain hopeful, if less happy, but Afghanistan’s disabled people have had their hopes die inside their chests. Afghanistan has undergone so many changes it’s hard to list them in an article. Tens of thousands of people who lost their limbs to bombs and missiles have been fitted with prosthetics – this is good. But for those of us confined to wheelchairs, nothing has changed from the days of the Taliban. True, thousands of wheelchairs have found their way into the country. But to be equipped with a wheelchair is to discover that you it won’t get you anywhere.I recently returned from a visit with family in Afghanistan. I had hoped to do some work helping people with disabilities, but I found myself locked in my sister’s house as soon as I arrived. A week later my sister acted like she was going to surprise me. She’d built a muddy wheelchair ramp in her front yard. ‘’You are good to go bro’’, she said excitedly. I was thankful, but what about the streets, the main road, the marketplaces, the government buildings, the schools? How could I even get to these places? None of the buses allow access to wheelchairs. The city buses were donated by neighboring countries. None of them are equipped with lifts. The Afghan government has done nothing. The government department that’s supposed to help people with disabilities is run by people who have no background in rehabilitation and know nothing about people with disabilities. Its main office doesn’t even have a proper wheelchair ramp. I found wheelchair-bound people waiting beside a crude ramp installed at the back of the building. The ramp still needed two people to push a chair to pass over it. People with disabilities are forced to remain inside their homes. If they suffer harassment or abuse at the hands of relatives, they can’t get to a police station to file a report. For many disabled people, life is a prison. I heard stories of people going days without food, washing or dressing, people who wanted to be dead, to end their miserable lives. There is also a terrible stigma attached to disability that is widespread in Afghanistan, owing to the popular idea that people who suffer disabilities are being punished through God's will, for bad actions. The hopelessness has fueled opium use among the disabled population. There are more than 20 TV channels in Afghanistan, but not one television program has been devoted to raising awareness or helping the public understand the value of people with disabilities. On my last visit, I stayed in Afghanistan for four months. Every time I wanted to go somewhere I had to have two or three people available to carry me, in order to get up stairs or over obstructions. I traveled with a hopeful heart, but sadly I returned empty handed – this was the third time I’d traveled to Afghanistan, returning hopeless. I couldn’t find a single NGO or government official who worked for the disabled population. Sometimes I’d get my hopes up, only to find that the NGO offices were not accessible to a person in a wheelchair. The UN and NGOs employ most of their funds renting luxury houses, buying expensive cars and paying high salary to their staff. With little funds left, they hardly achieve things that are barely noticeable or effective in the life of person with disability. In Afghanistan, people with disabilities do not have supporters like women’s rights activists. There are powerful women in the western countries that support women in Afghanistan. There are a lot of women in non-profit groups and there are high-profile women among western politicians. But if a doctor travels to Afghanistan, he or she only helps other doctors. If a woman goes to Afghanistan, she just speaks of women and their issues. If a politician goes to Afghanistan he or she is merely interested in meeting with other politicians. So it goes on. People with disabilities everywhere in the world face the worst kinds of financial problems and unemployment. We the people with disabled do not have any supporters. We would be lucky. . . if only President Franklin Roosevelt was still alive. The government is productive with assembling deals with the Taliban. Keep the opposition under control and close eyes on people, so that nobody crosses the line and hurts the Afghani-style democracy. These things have kept the government busy, and as a result, the government has not paid enough attention to people with disabilities. All they could do was two things. First, was establishing a task force to help the disabled. This is part of the Martyrs' Ministry. This is highly ineffective, and contributes to the impression that the disabled are not an integral part of the society. The disabled continue to exist as an unwanted outsider group, whose members find it demoralizing even to come to the Ministry assigned to help them! This is not working. Martyrs are highly rewarded by God, but we are still alive. Or, maybe the government already listed us as half martyr. Second, is the monthly benefit which is not even enough for a week's worth of support. The person has to come at the door of ministry in order to receive it, otherwise nobody delivery it to him or her. On the other hand, it has a long registration process to become qualify. Those who are not able to travel or visit the ministry can’t receive the monthly benefit. Today, we have the power to change our lives. We are connecting to global society. We can rehabilitate our disabled people, now that our country is at peace. Afghanistan needs an equivalent to the Americans with Disabilities Act, tailored to the needs of our country. Similarly, I believe an independent department within the Afghan government ought to be established to supervise and implement the Act. In a society like Afghanistan where millions of physically normal people suffer from hunger, people with disables have a disparate need; they are more victims of poverty and hopelessness. Their situation is completely different from others; they have families and children and most of them are considered as the only food bearer to the families and children. This big army of people with disabilities needs special attention and a big change in their life. Only provision of artificial limbs with very low quality will not affect their life. They depend on assistance from the Afghan government where the Afghan government itself relies on international assistance. They need houses, they need food and they need jobs. With NGOs and United Nations - as well as the presence of international forces in the country - they all must have to do something in order to bring a positive change in their lives and be useful in society. They are not mentally ill, they are just physically disabled who can participate in building their war torn country together with other Afghans. Basic education and provision of vocational training and required tools may change their life style. Fahim Khairy was born in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. A mysterious illness left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. He was granted refugee status and migrated to the US on August 2003. He is currently attending college in Phoenix, Arizona. Fahim.khairy@yahoo.com

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