By Alice Abdo
When individuals with physical disabilities consider leaving their house, they typically ask themselves two main questions: is the location they are planning to visit accessible, and will they be safe? They may have called or texted the place in advance and discussed these questions with others to inquire about their knowledge and opinion. After much deliberation with those close to them, they might choose to go because they believe it is their right to go out, participate in society and the community, and think positively like others.Many people look forward to summer because they enjoy spending time in the sun, like to go swimming or on vacation, and want to engage in other activities. When I say “people,” I mean all individuals without exception, including the general population, children, teenagers, seniors, and those with disabilities. But people with physical disabilities face particular difficulties during the summer. Our infrastructure and environment are, for the most part, not ready to accommodate them, which affects anyone who has a mobility handicap or is taking along their kid in a stroller. It can be very challenging to find accessible and adequately equipped venues or locations in Palestine – and being successful feels like receiving a reward.
Palestine has a population of over 7 million people, and approximately 2 percent of them have some form of disability. This includes physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental health disabilities. According to data collected in 2017, mobility impairments have the highest prevalence rate of physical disabilities, affecting 1.1 percent of people in Palestine. With a prevalence of 1.7 percent, adults are more likely to experience mobility impairments than children, who are more likely to experience communication and mobility impairments (0.4 percent for each).*1
But the gap between the existing laws regarding the rights of people with disabilities and their execution is wide in Palestine. International conventions aim to guarantee the freedom of movement for everyone, including people with disabilities. In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that came into force in March 2008. The Palestinian Authority (PA) acceded to this convention without reservations in 2014.*2 Similarly, both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women address the issue of protecting PwD, and the PA has acceded to both these conventions. Moreover, it has addressed the issue in national laws and policies: Articles 9 and 22 of the Palestinian Authority’s 2003 Basic Law assert the rights of all citizens for protection and service provision. In 1999, Law Number 4 Concerning the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the Palestinian Legislative Council as a progressive example of relevant legislation, followed in 2004 by a Presidential Decree that established the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities to oversee the law’s implementation. In 2021, the “National Strategic Framework for Disability” was formally adopted. Similarly, the Palestinian “National Development Plan 2014–2016” outlines plans to protect the rights of PwD, and the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s “Education Development Strategic Plan 2014–2019: A Learning Nation” addresses the needs of children with disabilities.*3
With the right preparation and assistance, people with disabilities can still take full advantage of the season.
While official statements, policies, and laws indicate that efforts are being made to increase accessibility for people with disabilities, few of these aims are being carried out. Cities have not installed wheelchair ramps in public areas and buildings or installed accessible restrooms to allow people with disabilities to travel with ease and take advantage of everything the town or city has to offer.
But let me talk about myself because I recently experienced the sudden onset of an impairment that requires me to use a walker. I am making every effort to maintain the same personality I used to have. But as a person with a physical disability, I must prepare and consider many points no one else must think about whenever I want to go out. Before I can travel anywhere, I must check the accessibility of the place I wish to visit, whether it is a park, beach, or recreational area. I look for accessible parking spaces, accessible restrooms, and ramps for wheelchairs or walkers. I used to wait for summer like any other person without a disability, looking forward to enjoying activities such as swimming, hiking, camping, and other outdoor pursuits. In my current condition, however, I spend a lot of time considering first whether to go out and then where to go, looking for a place that is accessible so I can enjoy my time. For instance, I might find a swimming pool with a flat entrance, but when we get there, I cannot enter the pool safely because the floor is not tiled with rough tiles, so it won’t be safe for me to walk on them. As a result, rather than having fun with my family, everyone worries that I might slip, fall, and injure myself.
Sometimes, I really want to go somewhere without having to consider whether or not there are steps, ramps, or elevators for simple access. Being able to consult a special app would be such a game-changer!
There are a variety of things to do in Palestine in the summer. You can explore the local cities; cook up a storm; hike the hills, valleys, and plains; camp out; and much more. But if people with disabilities think they can call beforehand or look up a venue’s accessibility information online, they are likely to find themselves disappointed. In fact, we have received responses such as, “Yes, sure, come! Everything will be fine, no worries! There are no stairs; the place is accessible.” Thus, I decided to go because I wanted to feel involved and enjoy myself like others. But once I arrived, the same thing happened again and again: everyone was asked to assist me in some way or another, and occasionally someone had to hold me so that I could enter the space and join the others. Receiving help is a human situation that I greatly appreciate, but can you imagine how much I would love to be able to participate while being independent of others and not feeling like I don’t belong there?
Parking difficulties are another issue I might encounter: the lot might be too far away, or it might be difficult to park the car in a narrow space, making it difficult for me to get out.
There are locations that have considered the issue and tried to make preparations. Jameel Sawalmeh from Lam Shamel, a venue in Ramallah that rents its facilities for wedding celebrations or conferences, asserts, “At Lam Shamel, we have considered the access of people with disabilities to the different facilities. Our event hall is equipped with an access ramp, as are the cabins.” The car park is on the main level, wheelchair access is easy, and walkways are paved. The administration is considering further improvements to the facilities to accommodate persons with a range of disabilities other than mobility. To implement these changes, Lam Shamel will engage with professional consultants that can provide the needed technical specifications. Jameel also explains, “During the development of our project, we conducted small-scale research for similar accommodation facilities in the Ramallah governorate. We have noticed that the vast majority of existing facilities lack the minimum access requirements.”
Let us set up meetings with interested private sector parties to begin putting into action measures that ensure the accessibility of public places and cultural and entertainment venues so everyone, including PwD, can participate and enjoy them.
Numerous factors impact the ability of PwD to move and participate in social life. They include financial limitations, difficulties in accessing transportation, and the restricted accessibility of buildings. Moreover, healthcare workers frequently do not understand the unique needs of people with disabilities, and even PwD themselves are not always aware of their rights – or their needs – when it comes to healthcare and inclusion.
Persons with a disability must be able to access their homes and public buildings freely. This right is unmistakably a corollary of the freedom of movement and of the right to a cultural life. For instance, last week, I was excited to attend a cultural event in Ramallah and really enjoyed the musical performance. The venue is considered entirely accessible, but when I tried to enter it, I had difficulties because the door was closed; I even had to lift my leg and skip a few centimeters while leaning on my walker. Even though there were many people to assist me, I felt frightened. Apparently, the committee that planned the design of the building, despite their best intentions, was unaware of how much the edge that caused me troubles would affect accessibility. Including PwD in such planning committees might create better outcomes.
I therefore recommend and wish that all buildings and locations in Palestine are made accessible in accordance with international criteria and building codes. We need the engagement of initiatives that should be led by PwD and include the private sector and all community stakeholders to install the necessary infrastructure and ensure accessibility. This will allow PwD to engage and be included in summer activities. Finally, it would be fantastic if we could create an application that lists accessible entertainment locations, outlining all relevant details, so PwD can choose places to visit when they wish to get outside the house.
*1 “Press release on the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 03/12/2021,” Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, available at chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.pcbs.gov.ps/portals/_pcbs/PressRelease/Press_En_2-12-2021-dis-en.pdf; see also: Rita Giacaman and Susan Mitwalli, “Disabilitiy in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (West Bank and Gaza): Analysis Report Central Bureau of Statistics Census Results 2017,” Disability Under Siege Network, January 2021, available at chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://disabilityundersiege.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Disability-in-oPt-Analysis-of-2017-PCBS-2017-Census-Results-FINAL.pdf.
*2 17th Presessional Working Group, “Palestine: Submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” Human Rights Watch, March 2023, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/03/13/palestine-submission-un-committee-rights-persons-disabilities#:~:text=The%20State%20of%20Palestine%20also,rights%2C%20including%20those%20with%20disabilities.
*3 Disability Rights in Palestine, SIDA, December 2014, available at chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://cdn.sida.se/app/uploads/2021/05/10142351/rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-palestine.pdf