Ten months ago, I started work as an advocacy projects officer at a Palestinian NGO in Gaza City. On my first day at Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children, I was concerned about how would I communicate with my new colleagues.
Anywhere in the world, language is central to the field of communications and advocacy. And while Arabic is my native tongue, and I started learning English when I was six, I could not communicate in the sign language that many of my colleagues use everyday.
Nearly half of the staff at Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children have hearing disabilities. I found myself constantly asking co-workers who could hear to interpret for me. Then, one day, a deaf colleague said he would like to teach me sign language.
I realised that sign language differs from one nation to another, even in countries where Arabic is spoken. It can have many different regional accents that bring subtle variations to people's use and understanding of signs. For example, there is a Palestinian sign language, a Kuwaiti sign language, an Egyptian sign language, among others. This is also the case for American sign language and British sign language.
My first week of learning was hard. I engaged in many conversations with colleagues. I observed them giving names to people and saw them deciding on my name. The deaf community has a unique naming system. For example, a colleague has a "sign name" where we move our hand with a small wave near the forehead to indicate a specific haircut she had when she joined the organisation almost two decades ago, before she wore the hijab. Another colleague has a name after a mole on her neck that is barely noticeable.
I still do not use sign language fluently, but thankfully the deaf community is very down-to-earth and tries to include anybody who might feel out of place. It's a valuable lesson for people who don't have any disabilities – to also include in their conversations people with disabilities.
Despite the accession of Palestine to the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014, life for people with disabilities in Gaza is hard. Women in particular still suffer certain forms of discrimination, a UN report found. They have limited participation in public life, employment, education and leisure. Few women with disabilities exercise their right to marriage, reproduction and living an independent life.
In social scenarios in Gaza, people all too often avoid those with disabilities, thus expanding the stigma of being hearing-impaired or being in a wheelchair. People with disabilities are often still seen as helpless, unable to care for themselves or make their own decisions. And needless to say, people with disabilities do not like being viewed as charity cases.
But despite problems, awareness about the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Gaza Strip has been improving. The number of disability rights organisations has increased, and many non-disability organisations have started proposing inclusion policies in their mandates. Yet, this has not been sufficient. Including people with disabilities needs to go beyond governmental policies. Societal acceptance and normalisation is essential. The Atfaluna Society, for one, initiated an inclusion policy five years ago to include all people in its activities.
In one session we asked people with disabilities about their needs from public health programmes in Gaza. A middle-aged woman pushed herself in a wheelchair, declining help from anyone who offered to push it for her, and took the microphone. She had been a strong believer in the rights of people with disabilities, herself becoming disabled after her participation in the 2018 Great March of Return demonstrations, to demand the end of the Israeli blockade and the right of return for refugees. In the years since, she has been unable to obtain assistive devices due to the extensive Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods, which hindered her ability to travel abroad to avail better health service.
Accessibility is a defining issue for people with disabilities. They, like anyone else, need to navigate dangerous public streets already damaged by repeated conflicts. Gaza Return Marches shone a spotlight on the increasing numbers of amputees and people with different disabilities.
A deaf colleague expressed to us her anger that she has never found any sign language interpretation for people with hearing disabilities in banks or at hospitals. Far too many buildings in Gaza are not accessible to people with disabilities. One local organisation inadvertently excludes people with mobile disabilities from cultural activities on its third floor simply because there are no elevators. One of the girls we served said she cannot enter many public buildings because of large steps or raised door frames. She also reported battling obstacles on transport and on the streets.
If I need to call people with disabilities to ask them to come to an event, I must make sure to invite them at a time when the electricity will be on so that they would be able to use electric elevators, or turn the light on to communicate in sign language.
In some societies it is also the parents of those with disabilities who have a tough time. Mothers bear a huge societal burden. Some feel blamed or ashamed of being mothers of children with disabilities. A mother in Gaza, who has a child with an intellectual disability, told me: “I always feel it is safer if my son does not leave the house. Therefore, I lock him inside.” I felt sad for the mother as a primary caregiver and for the child himself. Some organisations have been helping parents to communicate their needs and concerns without being ashamed.
But despite the work that still needs to be done, I have come to appreciate deeply Gaza society's approach to disability rights. One of the areas that needs improvement is employment.
For much of my time in advocacy, we have been conducting lobbying sessions with recruiters at local companies and businesses to make them aware of the viability of employing people with disabilities. Too often they are denied opportunities merely on the basis of perceived disabilities, when in fact they have the skillset.
We should not only challenge economic discrimination, we should also challenge conscious biases that some people and organisations can be guilty of. To put it simply, a conscious bias is when people prefer to employ people who don't have disabilities, rather than being open to believing that people with disabilities too have the capacity to work. We have tried to use the skills of people with disabilities without harming the performance of the organisation.
This could be through hiring people into the best inclusive environment to help them flourish. Those with a hearing disability could be placed where they pay attention to all details – graphic designers, for example. One such successful programme we worked on is developing the skills of a group of talented deaf designers on software such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
Palestinian society has spent the past few years finding new and better ways to solve diversity and inclusion issues in local organisations. A common counter-argument is the high unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip, which was roughly 50 per cent in 2021, according to unemployment report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). "There are no jobs for anybody, anyway,” a recruiter told us.
For women with disabilities, life is harder still. The intersectionality of issues increases the prejudices they face. This tends to impede full social integration, and increases economic discrimination and social stigma. Almost 43 per cent of women with disabilities are excluded from work due to their disabilities, according to research conducted by my colleagues.
It is a long struggle to end pervasive misconceptions that the people with disabilities are helpless or worthless. Around the world when Covid-19 struck, people with disabilities were discriminated against due to the lack of inclusive responses. A takeaway from the pandemic is that there should be a recognition of disability-inclusive approaches in all developmental policies. And while changing cultural perceptions is never easy, we can do our best to ensure that public policies are well-designed, inclusive and challenge discrimination – as much in Gaza as in the rest of the world.