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Political Analysis

Disability Rights as Human Rights in Sulaimani, Kurdistan-Iraq

People with disabilities form the world’s largest minority.[i] The World Health Organization estimates that 15% of the world’s population is disabled, and that 80% of people with disabilities live in low- and middle-income countries.[ii]  Because of constant warfare, Iraq has an even higher percentage of people with disabilities.[iii]  The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reported in 2019 that “Iraq has one of the largest populations of persons with disabilities in the world.”[iv] In Iraq, in general, disability is seen as an individual tragedy rather than as a minority category. This is true even in Sulaimani, in Kurdistan-Iraq, which is considered to be liberal, progressive, and educated, and which was named a Creative City of Literature by UNESCO.[v]  Several excellent disability rights advocacy organizations, most of which were founded and continue to be managed by people with disabilities, work very hard for inclusion, but they work against substantial barriers.

Laws Without Teeth

Physical and economic barriers keep many people with disabilities from meaningful participation in society, but even more deeply rooted are the institutionalized attitudinal barriers that perpetuate the lack of access. The prevalent perspective is that of the medical model, in which individual people with disabilities are considered broken and in need of repair and charity. There is a great deal of stigma and shame around disability, especially, but not exclusively, psychiatric disability. Real and lasting change will come about with a shift to the social model, a human rights perspective in which disability is seen as a normal human characteristic that any healthy community should accommodate.[vi] Several factors are necessary for the social model to come about; education is one of the most important factors.

The gap between the ideal of accessible education, as seen in the laws, and the reality—the lack of implementation of the laws— illustrates the challenges that disability activists face in shifting the community perspective. Special education—a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment—is an integral part of a healthy community. Ideally, education, including special education, is a right, not a privilege. If we were to look at the laws of Iraq and Kurdistan, without looking at the situation on the ground, we might conclude that children with disabilities are receiving all the accommodations necessary for a quality education. In reality, there is much work to be done to implement the laws and, just as importantly, to improve the social context in which people with disabilities live.

Three important legal documents appear to guarantee the right of all children, including children with disabilities, to an education. The UNCRPD, Kurdish Law 22, and Iraqi Law 38 make clear statements about the necessity of accommodating all learners, and name the specific necessary provisions to do so.

First, the UNCRPD, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is very clear about the right of all people to access education.[vii] Iraq signed this human rights instrument in 2013. Referring specifically to education, Article 24 of the UNCRPD has five main parts; overall and in summary, the article states that people with disabilities have a right to education and to an inclusive education system. No one, the article goes on to stipulate, should be excluded, and everyone should receive reasonable accommodation, including individualized support measures. Number 3 of Article 24 specifically ensures that blind, deaf, and deaf-blind students will have full accommodation. Number 4 of UNCRPD Article 24, furthermore, ensures that teachers will be trained in order to deliver these accommodations appropriately. And number 5 discusses access to education beyond primary and secondary school. The UNCRPD is a good document, but next to nothing in it has been implemented, as the follow-up reports from the UN show all too clearly.[viii]

Second, Law 22, of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), passed in 2011/2012, also offers clear guidelines for access to education.[ix]  Section 3, Part 2, is “The Right to Education.” The three provisions of Article 9 can be summarized as the following: everyone has a right to education; the government must support inclusive education; the disabilities of children must be noted early on. The reality that exists side by side with this law is quite different. People with disabilities and their allies have been urging the KRG to implement Law 22 ever since it was passed, but there has been very little meaningful implementation.

Third, Law 38, the Iraqi law, was passed in 2013, the same year that the UNCRPD was signed, and about the same amount of implementation of Law 38 has occurred as for Law 22.[x]  The fifth point of Chapter 2, Article 3, points to the role of special education, and Chapter 5, Article 15, specifies the role of the Ministry of Education in several points: the Ministry is to secure and supervise special education, as well as prepare the curricula. The Ministry is also meant to define and provide basic equipment and professional staff.

In reality, few public buildings, including schools, are accessible to people with disabilities, and the lack of accessible public transportation and the city’s faulty infrastructure prohibits most disabled children from going to school in any case. Because of the stigma of disability, many families choose not to send their disabled children to school because of their own shame and because of their justified fear that the child would be bullied. Deaf children are taught in sign language until the ninth grade in Kurdistan, but the quality of sign language, given the dearth of instruction in sign language, is uneven at best. In fact, members of the Deaf Society in Sulaimani tell us that most deaf people are illiterate, having dropped out of school at an early age.

The Iraqi Alliance of Disability, in a 2018 statement, was referring to Law 38, but what they say applies to all three legal documents—the UNCRPD, Law 22, and Law 38. The Alliance statement says that in order to implement these laws, they need teeth—teeth in the form of regulatory measures and rules.[xi] Implementation would also require funding. The Kurdish government has serious and chronic issues regarding the budget. Public school teachers, for example, along with all other government employees, are rarely paid their full, modest salary. In 2021, the government paid its employees only four months of twelve, and theSe salaries  were cut every time by about a quarter. Without being able to support basic maintenance, it seems impossible that the government will implement training and equipment for special education in the near future.

No amount of money will effect lasting improvement until the perception of disability changes. The Kurdish government, like any government, is not a monolithic force that chooses whether or not to accommodate people with disabilities. Legal implementation or lack thereof reflects the will of society at large, and unless there is enough social will to give teeth to the laws, little will change. Education of the general public, disabled and nondisabled, is needed alongside special education to make a shift away from the medical model, where people with disabilities are perceived as incapable of living a standard life that includes work, education, marriage.

Signs of Hope: Grassroots Disability Organizations

Several organizations of people with disabilities in Sulaimani work tirelessly to encourage the government to implement the laws, and are taking many steps toward educating the public about disability rights. In Sulaimani, the Rozh Society of People with Disabilities, working together with the Amazha Organization, as well as the Handicapped Union of Kurdistan, not only work with Kurdish  government officials but also hold events and go into the schools in order to educate the public. The Short Statured Society of Kurdistan is also very politically involved and active in educating the community by any means possible, as is the Blind Union of Kurdistan, which also focuses on employment. The Sulaimani Thalassemia Society prioritizes education, and along with many other activities, the Enable the Children Society, which advocates for people with Brain Paralysis (Cerebral Palsy), educates parents of children with disabilities, which is also an important part of Autism Blue’s mission.

As Kurdish disability activists and advocates and their allies work toward the social model, a caveat, of which they are well aware, must be kept in mind.  The social model of disability rights as human rights was developed in the West and is based on independent individualism, and as such is not entirely appropriate, whole-cloth, for this interdependent, extended-family-based society. The attempts at disability inclusivity in the Kurdish public school textbooks actually present disability inclusion as a foreign, Western phenomenon. We see images that are unfamiliar to the region such as a white, blonde girl using a wheelchair and a boy assisted by a helping dog, along with other western imports such as Stephen Hawking and Helen Keller.[xii]

The community as a whole—disabled and nondisabled people working together—can develop a social model of disability that fits the region. With the continued work of disability activists, advocates, and allies, a meaningful shift can take place.  When Kurdish people with disabilities are acknowledged as part of a minority group, not as individual victims of tragedy, the way will be paved for the implementation of their human rights.

[i] Clarisse Joy Mañabat. 2019. “PWD Can: A Look at the Status of the Person with Disabilities, the World’s Largest Minority.”
https://plussocialgood.medium.com/pwd-can-a-look-at-the-status-of-the-person-with-disabilities-the-worlds-largest-minority-765ff0f13b4b (accessed 10 February, 2022).
[ii] WHO (World Health Organization). 2021. “Disability and Health.” https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health. Accessed 10 February 2022.
[iii] IOM (International Organization for Migration). 2021. “Persons with Disabilities and their Representative Organizations in Iraq: Barriers, Challenges, and Priorities.”
https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/OPDs%20report%20English.pdf. Accessed 10 February 2022.
[iv] OHCHR (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). 2019. “Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Discusses the Impact of the Armed Conflict on Persons with Disabilities in Iraq.”
https://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/committee-rights-persons-disabilities-discusses-impact-armed-conflict-persons. Accessed 10 February 2022.
[v] “Slemani UNESCO City of Literature.” 2019. https://slemanicityofliterature.com. Accessed 11 February 2022.
[vi] A summary of the medical and social models of disability can be found in many sources; one is “Social Model vs. Medical Model of Disability,” n.d.  http://www.disabilitynottinghamshire.org.uk/index.php/about/social-model-vs-medical-model-of-disability/. Accessed 10 February 2022.
[vii] The full text of the UNCRPD document,  with additional information about it, can be found at https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html. Accessed 8 February 2022.
[viii] UNAMI (UNITED NATIONS ASSISTANCE MISSION FOR IRAQ). 2016. “Report on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Iraq.”
https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNAMI_OHCHR__Report_on_the_Rights_of_PWD_FINAL_2Jan2017.pdf. Accessed 20 February 2022.
[ix] The law can be found at https://www.parliament.krd/english/parliament-activities/legislation/2011/. Accessed 8 February 2022.
[x] The Iraqi Constitution can be found at https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl-nat.nsf/xsp/.ibmmodres/domino/OpenAttachment/applic/ihl/ihl-nat.nsf/AB723CA2A7D00C72C12576A100606F19/TEXT/Constitution_en.pdf. Accessed 8 February 2022.
[xi] Iraqi Alliance of Disability. 2018. “The Parallel Report for Government’s Report on
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD).”
https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/1449271/1930_1541602017_int-crpd-ico-irq-31954-e.doc. Accessed 10 February 2022.
[xii] The Center for Gender and Development Studies’ 2021 “Society’s Backbone: Intersectional Evaluation of Textbooks,” a report on K-9 textbooks that includes depictions of disability, is available at   https://egender.auis.edu.krd/mod/resource/view.php?id=629. Accessed 10 February 2022.