Since February 2020, chances are most people have read the results of at least two or three COVID-19 antigen tests. It could have been due to suspicious symptoms or because you were on your way to see your grandparents or another at-risk loved one. The frequency skyrockets for children going to school and healthcare staff. It is easy to forget how this simple process, that has become such an integral part of our lives, can be most challenging for blind or visually impaired individuals.
How do you see the result? You need someone to read it for you. What if you live alone, or no one is available at the time?
This simple example shows the importance of social inclusion. Social inclusion is about ensuring each and every one of us can live a self-reliant, dignified life. There is still little general awareness of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities, who represent an astonishing 15% of the Mediterranean region’s population. That is 3 out of 20 people, making them the largest minority of any society.
Jahda Abou Khalil has been an activist in the disability movement since 1988. Born and raised in south Lebanon, Jahda moved to Beirut to pursue her studies, where she obtained her masters’ degree in clinical psychology. Fast-forward to today, she is the General Director of the Arab Organization of Persons with Disabilities (AOPD). Nothing indicated at the time that Jahda would devote her career to raising awareness and improving the lives of persons with disabilities. No one in her family suffered from any kind of impairment, nor any of her acquaintances.
However, following a friend’s suggestion, Jahda decided to focus her PhD on the body image of persons with disabilities. Starting her research, she realised how little information was available on disability in the region. While her investigation led her to be increasingly involved with impaired persons and activists in the sector, Jahda admits with a smile that she started to forget about her PhD. She soon met Nawaf Kabbara, the current president of the AOPD, who was already a prominent figure in the sector. Together, they founded a research center to promote the rights of persons with disabilities.
According to Jahda, the lack of data and statistics in this sector is one of the major obstacles to improving policies and social inclusion. More data is available in some European countries but the situation is particularly critical in the Maghreb and Mashreq regions.
Over in Spain, Patricia Sanz was born with a visual impairment. From birth, she has been affiliated with the ONCE Social Group, a unique, member-based organisation that has built up a system of social benefits for the blind and visually impaired over 80 years. Today, Patricia is one of the ONCE Social Group’s four vice-presidents.
Just like Jahda, Patricia studied psychology, after which her early professional experiences reinforced her interest in understanding the challenges faced by persons with other disabilities. While working as a human resources professional in a recruiting company, Patricia was already lobbying to improve equal employment opportunities for impaired individuals. In her own words, she has seen tremendous progress in the past 20 years on how disability is tackled in society: “the only issue is that the more progress you see, the more you want to achieve and subsequently, more challenges appear”, Patricia says with a chuckle.
However, witnessing progress does not mean that the work is over. The circumstances for a person with disabilities vary greatly within the Euro-Mediterranean region. Each country will have its own approach to disability, as well as its own perception of persons with disabilities, conditioned by the country’s history and social movements. However, common ground – and challenges – can easily be found, most of all when it comes to women with disabilities. Whichever the country, impaired women always suffer from double the discrimination: they are underrepresented in the political, economic, and social sphere, and are more likely to be illiterate, unemployed and overlooked in the healthcare system.
As Jahda explains, in many countries, impaired women are not contemplated within the law, which lacks a gender perspective in apprehending disability. Patricia reminds us that when it comes to violence against persons with disabilities, women are 8 percentage points more likely to suffer from mental or physical violence than men with disabilities. Moreover, not being financially independent can prevent women from leaving a violent domestic environment.
A change in perception is necessary to truly empower persons with disabilities. Currently, social protection is seen as a replacement of employment. However, instead of providing an allowance for persons with disabilities, the focus should shift to including them in the active labour market. In the framework of a Euro-Mediterranean cooperation on this topic, tourism has shown great potential for the social and economic inclusion of impaired individuals, most of all for youth and women. As Patricia puts it:
“Cooperation in the region cannot overlook the specificities of the challenges faced in each country. This cooperation should always be respectful of cultural differences, and it is not because something works in one country that it will automatically work in another. […] We will achieve greater results through the strength found in our differences.”
The UfM’s action on social inclusion
The recent UfM Conference on Disability and Social inclusion in the Euro-Mediterranean region (26-27 January 2022) took place almost one year after the adoption of the EU Strategy for the rights of persons with disabilities 2021-2030, and aimed to promote awareness of the needs of the persons with disabilities. Furthermore, in close cooperation with the ONCE Social Group, the UfM is currently supporting a pilot project in Morocco to facilitate the economic inclusion of women with disabilities in the tourism sector.
The UfM believes that countries and civil society organisations should cooperate to open routes to economic empowerment and financial inclusion so that people with disabilities can enjoy decent work and achieve financial independence. This will mean creating more and better jobs, providing social protection, ensuring the necessary training and making workplaces accessible.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities accelerated regional recognition of disability as central to human development and social justice initiatives. Moreover, in line with the principles set out in the EU Agenda for the Mediterranean adopted in 2021, the UfM is working to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities and collect the relevant disaggregated data, which are essential to promote better legislation.
That is why the UfM is fully committed to tackling this challenge. Indeed, in the recently adopted UfM Youth Strategy 2030, the full empowerment of people with disabilities is a key focus.
- ONCE Social Group: website
- “The life experiences of 21 women who challenged disability”, by Ms. Jahda Abou Khalil
- The UfM Conference on Disability and Social inclusion in the Euro-Mediterranean region – Final Report
 National Association for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.