Discrimination against people with physical or mental difficulties is rife in the GCC. Facing blatant exclusion, as well as intimidation and prejudice, is par for the course for many. Team Y investigates how Oman is responding to the needs of differently-abled people, and learns some of the daily challenges they face.
“A challenge is a notion that’s decided by the society. You decide what your real challenges are and who you want to be”.
Zainab al Barwani, a 26-year-old engineering graduate from one of the top colleges in Oman, voices these words loudly, and with the intention of being heard.
Her intentions are clear: to bring down the various stigmas faced by those challenged both physically and intellectually in a land that she believes requires a “thorough understanding of the troubles and cries of those differently-abled” in the Sultanate.
It’s a liberty she didn’t quite receive as she grew up – often being bullied in school by friends and a handful of extended family members for being restricted in her movement.
Diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy – an incurable condition that damages and weakens muscles over time – at the age of seven, wheelchair-user Zainab says that she was harassed by her friends and traduced by her relatives.
“While childhood is a place that most kids cherish, it was a part of my life I would like to forget,” says Zainab, who attended one of the top government schools in the country.
“Because of this, I was incredibly shy as a child. I felt that I was constantly being watched.
“Kids in my class would sometimes pester me about my legs because of their ignorance of the topic. After all, they too were kids with no knowledge of what I was undergoing.
“In truth, even I didn’t know the full extent of what condition I had. All I knew was that I was differently-abled and that I would need to be confined to my best friend: my wheelchair.
“But what they didn’t realise is that every word stung me and every time I was looked down upon by my teachers, I would curse myself from the inside.”
All of this, she says, changed when she met her fiancé, who has since joined her in her journey to enlighten the nation about breaking social and personal stigmas faced by those differently-abled.
Today, they visit schools and colleges to conduct talks and increase awareness on the various kinds of challenges people face – and how it must be addressed in a manner that allows the person to grow with the same self-confidence as any other individual.
This is elaborated on by Salma Naimi, a visiting counsellor working with a private hospital in the Sultanate. She says: “Talking about something as serious as the struggles of a differently-abled person is a very complex process.
“Firstly, some of them are still coming to terms with their own physical and mental struggles, and then there are the social taboos that are associated with a few of these conditions.”
So, the right thing to do initially, she says, is to pinpoint those classified as differently-abled.
“In short, anyone who is undergoing a permanent – or likely to be permanent – form of psychiatric, intellectual, cognitive, neurological, and sensory or physical impairment or a group of those impairments classifies as a differently-abled person,” she says.
As per statistics revealed by the World Bank in 2017, a total of one billion people – or 15 per cent – of the world’s population experience some form of challenge, of which anywhere between 110 million and 190 million people experience more significant challenges that require constant medical attention.
Another significant point raised by the report is of the higher prevalence of such cases in developing countries, and how this can give rise to adverse socio-economic and social issues that affect the mental and physical well-being of the individual; such as in the case of Zainab.
This is currently under the scanner here in Oman as the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) reveals in its report that 34,861 Omanis had registered as differently-abled among several other expats, thereby raising the final count to more than 60,000.
According to Salma, this raises several concerns as she believes that the Sultanate –like most GCC countries – is not “tackling its traditional mindsets effectively” nor taking strides to implement a change.
It’s a point that Zainab frequently reveals in her speeches, but is also one many experience daily.
Take for instance, Ali al Mahrooqi*, a salesman working in an automotive showroom with a leading company in the capital, who, like Zainab, is confined to a wheelchair. He says (in an amused tone): “While most of my friends and colleagues struggle with car sales numbers, my struggle every day starts with finding someone to help me up the stairs.
Ali’s company has repeatedly refused his requests for wheelchair access to the sales floor, causing him much discomfort – but he has since found alternative ways to make his life easier.
“Now, every day at 8am, the office boy will wait for my wife to drop me to the showroom and he will lift me and the wheelchair up the stairs, or sometimes, I head in from the car ramp in the far end of the showroom.
“Honestly, every time I raised this with my management, they’d say that they’ll consider it and that they’ll make arrangements in the annual budget to redo the stairs in front of the showroom. Of course, nothing has ever happened, though.
“Another concern is the toilet; it’s just not friendly for me with my wheelchair. So, the only time I use the toilet is when I’m desperate. And it’s a very strenuous process. You cannot even imagine how much effort I must put to lift myself from the wheelchair,” he adds, as his tone quickly changes.
In truth, Ali is only one among several that fall victim to poor building planning that offers little to no assistance to those that must use wheelchairs.
This has been the case with several restaurants, residential units, offices and other buildings. These do not offer any ramps, lifts or toilets for the differently-abled. Even slippery flooring can cause lasting damage to someone with physical challenges – all of which are against the directives of the Muscat Municipality.
This was raised by Zainab and her fiancé in an interview with local media. During the interview, they stressed how buildings in the Sultanate were still flouting the law by finding loopholes and were failing to offer safe access to those that are physically challenged.
“A lot of them can’t speak up in their work environment either. I’ve come across a lot of people who say that they’ve been threatened by their management for speaking out [their concerns].
“It’s something that we are now in talks with the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) and Muscat Municipality for; earning equal rights for everyone in the country.
In a statement to Y, one MoM official who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “One cannot be threatened with their job because they demanded something that they deserve. In fact, such companies will be punished. Anyone who faces discrimination at their work environment can reach out to us through our portal or call us on our hotline number.”
However, this brings us to our next problem: finding companies that are willing to offer the differently-abled jobs in the first place.
Though we’ve come across private organisations that aim to make a difference – like the Al Thiqah and Lulu hypermarkets that offer jobs to the differently-abled from all walks of life – several people are crying foul over how they’re overlooked by companies when hiring staff.
Madiha al Ghafri* is one among thousands of people snubbed for jobs in their fields due to their physical challenges.
At the age of 32, Madiha – who cannot hear or speak – tells us that her dream of settling down with a stable job and a family seems further away than ever.
Her interpreter tells us: “I’ve been looking for a job as an accountant for the past three years – and I’ve applied for over 50 positions online in both private and public companies. But, the only interview I had this year was in January.
“I didn’t get the job,” she says.
Her attempts to walk in for an interview were also unsuccessful as she was denied jobs in many companies, which she believes, was due to her physical condition.
While we cannot validate the reasons behind her job rejections, we can speak to the MoM official, who goes on to reveal how the ministry has uncovered private companies overlooking the hiring of the differently-abled, despite strict laws and quotas that mandate their hiring.
He says: “The laws set by the MoM state that at least two per cent of the total workforce of a private firm should be reserved for the differently-abled. This gives them an opportunity to truly begin their career and flourish for the betterment of their nation.”
The fact of the matter is that Oman currently boasts its personal best of 236,729 in local staff in private companies but only a meagre 236 of them – or one per cent of the total Omani workforce – are differently-abled.
This number rises to 657 in the government – albeit, it still amounts to less than one per cent of the total workforce in the public sector.
“Now, the issue that we’re seeing is that this isn’t being enforced as much as we want it to be. And a part of the reason for that is because a lot of the people that come forward and fit the criteria do fall short in education qualification.
“This means that we’re now playing cat-and- mouse games but with no results. We’ll keep pushing the companies to hire and they’ll return to us with reasons as to why they’re not hiring certain people.
“We can set quotas for companies to fill and have seminars to educate them but we cannot force them to hire someone,” he says, in a bid to uphold the integrity of companies operating in the country.
For Zainab, the lives and upbringings of several differently-abled children have changed from what they were even a decade ago.
She exclaims: “Back in the day, I’d see one of my neighbours – a girl with autism – having had to drop out from school because her grandfather thought that it would be better for her to stay at home.
“While this not only stops the poor kids from picking up general knowledge, and social and interactive skills; it strips them of their childhood and what they must experience as they grow up.”
We also learnt from Salma the most common forms of challenges faced by the children in Oman: autism, Down syndrome (DNS), Dyslexia and different sensory and physical impairments.
Sadly, however, this leads to several children being kept away from schools and colleges in a bid to have them closer to the family, and in some cases, to reduce the chances of other factors such as bullying and harassment.
And while these may come across as concern from the families, Zainab says: “Having gone through all the pain in my early days, I can still say that education has been my one and true weapon to take on the world.
“Without that, I’d be and feel like a nobody,” she says. Her frustration with the system is very evident in her tone.
“Education is one of the key factors that can turn any form of physical and mental challenge around and put the world in your favour.”
Global Partnership for Education, a global fund dedicated to education, has a strong take on the importance of education for all children: “Denying differently-abled children their right to education has a lifelong impact on learning, achievement and employment opportunities, hence hindering their potential economic, social and human development.
“To ensure that all children enjoy their basic human rights without discrimination, inclusion of kids across all spheres should be mainstreamed in all policies and plans.
“This applies to education systems, which need to promote inclusion by ensuring the presence, participation and achievement of all children, including children with disabilities”.
Al Injaz Private School is one school in the Sultanate that has a section for special needs at Al Ansab.
Understanding the growing need for special education services in the country, the school caters for students whose academic and developmental needs cannot be met through mainstream education.
Amitha Sharma, the director of the Al Injaz Private School, explains that the educational ethos across the globe today is that of inclusion.
She says: “When children with disabilities are schooled with children without disabilities they acquire age-appropriate social skills by watching their classmates or schoolmates without disabilities.
“Integrated settings provide a lot of benefits for children with disabilities: they become more independent, and obtain developmentally advanced skills, make friendships and start getting a positive self-image.”
One parent of a child with DNS, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “While the Omani government has done much for differently-abled children, we must do more as a society.
“Haunted by the startled eyes of people, labelled ‘different’ and, in some cases, unseen; many children in Oman are seen as a burden, and their own families, in many cases, give up on them.”
This is a growing matter of concern as, aside from lack of facilities, bullying, education, and work-related challenges; we learn that several differently-abled people are facing troubled finding a suitor for marriage.
It’s something Aisha al Barwani, a social worker, psychologist, and life-coach is intending to address in her new book, called ‘Together and After’.
Her book, which is due for release later this year, focuses on the marital problems faced by youth in the country, and she also touches upon the stories of differently-abled Omanis struggling to find a spouse – some who have been searching for over five years.
She tells us: “My heart goes out (to those differently-abled) as their fight is one that is of determination – and it’s not one that stems from their physical challenges alone.
“Most marriages happen through family-arranged setups, but we’re now seeing a growing number of youth that are left seeking a spouse for years. I recently interviewed one lady with Multiple Sclerosis whose family has been trying to find a suitable groom for the past five years.
“And even though there have been people coming in from various GCC countries – with men who are similarly challenged – she has not been able to find ‘the one’.
“When her family had left the premises, she also told us how she was often mistreated, mentally harassed, and blamed for her physical condition – sometimes by her own parents,” exclaims Aisha.
“The culture of adding societal pressures on those that are differently-abled have always been a taboo in this part of the world. And even though these taboos are changing quickly, there’s quite a lot of people who continue to live under terrible conditions.
She then urges parents in Oman to connect with therapists or counsellors if they find it hard to support their children as opposed to relying on their instincts in treatments.
The Al Wafa Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children in Liwa, North Batinah, is one of the newly-opened facilities that is now a pioneer in offering treatments to those in need.
Aisha adds: “Things are changing slowly. People are realising the faults in their ways and are making amends – and one good thing is that the government is now involved in the process of educating and creating this revolution.
She’s right, as several forts – including the iconic one in Nizwa – and other government organisations have now become wheelchair- accessible.
Moreover, with the addition of several clinics focusing on mental health, those differently-abled can now reach out to professionals for help.
This is something that Zainab says will create a positive change within the public.
“They say that knowledge is power. With that in mind, I can say that even the smallest of acknowledgements that we receive from the public and the government across various spheres of life will make a change.
“Many people think that localised education won’t make a difference – and they tell me that when I go for lectures in schools and colleges. But, the reality is that it is these people who will help spread the word.
“And for someone who is fighting a battle stemming from these challenges, only one person is required to change their life.
“We don’t need anyone’s pity. What we require is inclusion – we’re not any different to you. Treat us as a part of your circle and include us in your daily lives.
“Equality forms the basis of a well-rounded society – and that includes having and creating opportunities and respect for one another, irrespective of whether they’re differently-abled or not.”
* Names changed to protect identity