Disable But Very Able.

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As I rush on to my bus to London extremely late, I am relieved to find that I am to be seated for the entire journey next to a young fellow Somali traveler. I smile before sitting down and greet him with “salama aleykum” to which he replied “waa aleykum wa salaam.” After this I extended my arm to him and he reluctantly lifted his right hand to shake mine. Upon seeing his shortened hand I realized that my fellow traveler was disabled and very conscious about it.

Throughout the journey he and I spoke about almost everything and from our discussion I learnt that he was born disabled on the right side of his upper body and that he had lived in the UK only for 4 years since coming from Somalia. Remarkably he spoke English with confidence and appeared to be a very determined student who aspired to university education in the field of Engineering. However, when I asked him why he felt so self conscious about his disability he informed me that he thought I was a typical Somali person who would just judge him and feel sorry for him. Why would he think that I wondered but before I could search for the potential answers in my own head, as if by instinct, he said, “Because they just do. To them I am just a curyaan.” The last word caught me of guard as despite its strength and its ugliness it was used casually by this young man to describe what some in his very own community must call him.

This courageous boy made me very proud and very upset at the same time. Never had I seen such courage and pessimism in a young man in equal measures. What made me even angrier was the free and easy use of the term “curyaan” by the Somali people this young man came into contact with. This is offensive and absolutely wrong and is prohibited in most of the western developed world by Disability Discrimination legislations. However, if with even all of this legislative protection a disabled person can feel so harassed and marginalized in Europe by his own community what hope do those disable people living in Somali have against such prejudice?

People can be classified as disabled when they have a physical or mental impairment and where this impairment has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to perform normal everyday tasks. However, most disabilities can be treated or prevented through health provision but in developing countries such as Somalia and the self declared independent republic of Somaliland, treatment can be hard to find at the best of times and even when found it can be too expensive to afford for most people. According to The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities there are around 650 million disabled people living in the world and the global importance of the creation of the Convention is demonstrated by the fact that when the register was opened to signatory states to register themselves, it attracted more signatories in its opening day than any or convention before it. Out of the 149 signatory States 103 have ratified it and while this is encouraging, globally disability discrimination, especially in the developing world is rife and disability policies governed by ignorance and delivered by patronizing bureaucrats, technocrats and NGO’s.

In Somali due to the ongoing disastrous civil war, more people have become disabled as a result of the indiscriminate violence and the resulting poverty. However, in the self declared independent State of Somaliland, there appears to be encouraging moves towards tackling the myths behind disability and legislating against it. This is clearly evident in the latest actions of President Ahmed Sillanyo who recently appointed a committee to look into how women and minorities can participate in politics. However, as ambitious as this sounds, it will not lead to meaningful change unless this committee engages with those they are supposed to be helping directly and document their concerns and their aspirations. Too often in developing countries the same prejudice that policy makers should be tackling prevents them from engaging with those they are legislating for and this is tragic as their own policies can be wasteful, misdirected and based merely on assumptions and societal prejudice.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires all signatory governments to promote Disability rights and protect the disabled people of their countries from discrimination through the use of legislation and education. However, more pressingly in developing countries, the Convention advices signatories to recognize the contributions and efforts made by disabled people in society which would have been enormous had they not had and continue to have barriers to participating in public life.

Prejudice towards people as a result of their difference is wrong. However, what was obvious from the young man I was travelling on the coach with to London was that it made him very unconfident despite his enormous achievements and consequently withdraw from society rather than share and celebrate his success openly. What is certain is that had the Somali community had a better perception of disability the very able young man would have been more positive about himself, life and his prospects. Disability can occur at any time or stage in ones life and by fostering a positive image of it we might be able to make society more tolerant for ourselves in the future.

It would have been easy for the Somali government, had they had peace, to formulate and implement anti disability discrimination laws but at present they are engaged with securing the fragile peace in the South and enhancing their credibility. But for the self declared independent State of Somaliland and autonomous regions such as Puntland, there can be no excuses. While they cannot ratify the conventions as a result of not been recognized as States, they can engage in the kind of action that would make it easier for it to be implemented in the future if both are successful in their different aspirations.

Meetings and steering groups are fine as a starting point in Somaliland but more needs to be done from the top of the political tree to show that the government takes the issue of Disability discrimination seriously. And it ought to because disabled people, especially women and children, suffer greatly and in a Muslim State that can do something about it this is unacceptable. As well as creating anti discrimination laws and genuinely enforcing it, the government of Somaliland must lead the way in its own offices and departments on the issue of recruiting and training qualified disabled staff within government. It must also put in place quotas in the different employment sectors to encourage more disabled people to enter the labor market from which they appear to be excluded at present. Some may argue this to be unfair but it is the most effective way of tackling deep held societal prejudices and leveling the playing field slightly for those who are marginalized to this day.

The courage it takes to accept and live with disability is something most of us will never ever know. Society must stand shoulder to shoulder with its most vulnerable to fight discrimination and hate crime which are built on the foundations of ignorance and prejudice. Disabled people, label aside are people and they have enormous amounts to contribute to society and this contribution will be forever lost if the governments of Somaliland and the autonomous Somali region of Puntland allow ignorance to side line them. Disabled people in these different places do not need charity but policies that protect their interests and give them the opportunities they need to succeed.

By. Liban Obsiye.


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