BEIRUT: The government might be on hold, but that’s no reason why existing laws shouldn’t be enforced – particularly for some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. That was the message at the launching of a new report entitled “The Government’s ‘Goodwill’ is not enough.” The report, issued by the group Disability Monitor, details violations of the country’s disability law and calls for better enforcement of the law.
A conference, hosted by the Physical Handicapped Union, to launch and publicize the report was held at the Beirut Bar Association in Badaro Wednesday in the presence of caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour and caretaker Labor Minister Salim Jreissati, as well as dozens of people with disabilities, to show their support for the findings.
The 34-page report in Arabic, the first of its kind, details the various violations of Law 220 of 2000, which was supposed to ensure equal rights and access to public places to people with physical disabilities. The findings were bleak.
Based on six months of research, complaints filed at various ministries, and interviews with people with physical disabilities from across the country, the report finds that hospitals regularly deny services to those in wheelchairs; public buildings and sidewalks are not sufficiently accessible; there is a lack of accessible parking areas and an absence of inclusive public transportation; housing loans are regularly denied and buildings are often inaccessible; there is a lack of access to education and sports as well as routine job discrimination.
“We just want the law to be enforced. We [people with disabilities] are not asking for charity,” said Sameya Bou Hasan, the union’s national program coordinator, who took part in the research and helped present the findings.
During her fieldwork, she found that some of the most shameful cases of discrimination begin when a person with a disability is as young as five, when they should be starting grade school. Because most state schools are not handicapped-accessible, many of these students miss out on their most basic education. As a result, they are often placed in “residential institutes” – state institutions that house people with disabilities, teaching them to read and write and also how to make crafts, but leaving them relatively unskilled, without university degrees and ultimately unable to contribute in a meaningful way to society.
“They have no future,” Bou Hasan said. “The Ministry of Social Affairs puts more of its budget toward these residences than they do toward public schools.
“This means kids aren’t integrating.”
She believes that if children with disabilities could integrate into public schools, they would be better able to contribute to society. This would be better not only for them but also for their families and the state, which wouldn’t be responsible for their financial support.
Another sadly ironic discovery she made during her research was that even the Labor Ministry, responsible for advocating workers’ rights, was not abiding by the 3 percent quota of employees with disabilities as required by Law 220. Approximately 10 percent of Lebanon’s population is estimated to be disabled.
Another contributor to the report was Jana Husseini, an advocacy officer with Disability Monitor, who herself was unable to vote in the last elections because her local polling station on the third floor lacked an elevator.
Like her colleagues, she found that some of the most distressing cases of discrimination involve the denial of access to education. She noted that even those who do manage to complete their studies, in some cases obtaining advanced degrees, enter a job market where there is no penalty enforced for discrimination.
Although the study’s authors don’t expect things to change overnight, they do expect their report – which they will distribute to all ministries – to generate awareness that will lead to better enforcement of Law 220 in the future. Moreover, they are undeterred by the country’s four-month government stalemate.
“We need to have a culture of human rights and transparency,” said Sylvia Lakkis, executive director of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union.
She cited one example of a student with a disabled writing arm who had managed to complete her studies but was denied permission for extra time to complete her exam despite her condition, preventing her from obtaining her degree. She noted, “All cases are painful. If you can’t park your car, you can’t be independent.”
“It’s our right, and we need to do our best to be a society for everyone,” Lakkis added.