Raya Al-Jadir reviews the BBC Three documentary ‘The World’s Worst Place to be Disabled?’ and reflects on her own childhood growing up with a disability in the Middle East.
Last Tuesday as part of their Defying the Label season, BBC Three aired a powerful documentary that asked if Ghana was the world’s worst place to be disabled. This investigation was lead by disabled journalist Sophie Morgan, who spent time in the country and came across many poor disabled people, each with a heart breaking story of prejudice, neglect and abuse.
The documentary was incredibly shocking but I was not surprised by what I saw. Even the harrowing scenes of disabled people being chained, imprisoned and treated like animals did not surprise me, or the way in which disabled people are isolated by their families from the outside world. Being a disabled woman of a Middle Eastern background (I have a form of muscular dystrophy) and having lived in the Middle East during my childhood, I have witnessed first hand cultural and religious stigma towards disabled people like myself.
I never came across any other disabled children when I was a child in the Middle East. I grew up thinking I was unique and special. Then in adulthood I learnt that disabled children existed but were mostly hidden away because they represented shame and a sign of failure on the family’s part to produce a ‘normal’ child.
Most often it was the mother who got the blame as she is the one giving birth. As a child I would watch my mother endure pitying looks from strangers and a look of superiority from others. As I grew older, I could see that some families genuinely believe that by hiding the disabled relative they were protecting not just them but the entire family from shame. The fear was that if the disabled relative was discovered, no one would want to marry into that family in case the disability was inheritable.
In The World’s Worst Place to be Disabled? Sophie Morgan met a man kept hidden away at his home. It reminded me of my own father’s nanny who had some form of disability. She was kept in my grandparents’ home, never allowed to leave, and when visitors came she was hidden in her room as people, and especially children, often screamed when they saw her. It was just my siblings, cousins and I that were not scared as we knew how kind and loving she was. Her own family had deserted her and never visited for fear of the shame they would face. The more I watched the documentary, the more convinced I grew that there are many terrible places to live as a disabled person.
For me, the most interesting part of the BBC Three documentary was looking at how religious belief can be used to justify the wrong doings that people commit against disabled people. Even murdering a disabled child was seen as a spiritual act by the perpetrator!
Religion is sometimes manipulated to achieve certain motives by people, fully aware of how vulnerable people are desperate for hope. My parents are both highly educated, yet when I was a child and after seeking medical advice in UK, USA and France with no hope offered to them, they succumbed to the pressure of relatives and friends and began a journey of spiritual healing. I lost count of the times I visited a ‘special and gifted’ imam who recited prayers on me and the spiritual leaders who made strange and weird demands of my mother. I recall one man in particular who heated dates and stuck them to me from the waist down. I was told to perform some sort of ritual but I refused and as soon as I got home I demanded to have the dates washed off me. After my non-cooperation, my mother gave up and we stopped visiting such figures.
When I first moved to the UK I was so surprised when I saw other disabled people complaining about life here and remember thinking ‘these disabled people are so lucky and don’t even realise it’. But now I realise that if we don’t continue to speak out about disablism in the UK then we will never progress. While the UK is more advanced in the field of disability equality compared to other countries, there is no denying that current welfare reform has caused distress for many disabled people, and we still experience discrimination and disability hate crime. So it is vital that we disabled people continue to campaign about every aspect that limits our independence.
We owe it to the worldwide disabled community to keep on fighting for our rights, wherever we may live, so that one day we can all live life to the fullest without stigma and prejudice.
Raya Al-Jadir is a disabled writer and a member of Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Trailblazers, the young disabled campaigners network.