Introduction

Ola’s aim is to empower women with disabilities and create an enabling environment to guarantee their full integration in society through having access, equity, and full participation.

Ola’s idea is to integrate women with disabilities into society through creating an enabling environment and empowering them socially and legally so they can access their rights and contribute to the whole society as complete citizens.

 

Ola is raising society’s awareness about the potential of the disabled women through her CSO. Contrary to the predominant perception, women with disabilities have potentials that the whole society can benefit from. Seeking her goal, Ola’s CSO works towards access, equity, and full participation of women with disabilities through education, coalition building, research, self-advocacy, resource development, information and communication technology.

 

To empower women themselves, Ola arranges and mobilizes disabled women through providing them with the necessary skills such as negotiation, presentation, and communication skills in addition to medical and rehabilitation services.

 

Ola’s idea has two objectives, first advocating for the rights of disabled women, which might not be new to the western world but definitely new for the Palestinian society, the Levantine region and the Arab World where disabled women are kept perfectly hidden at their homes. Second, providing direct individual services and training to help empower disabled women in need to start over as active members in the society.

 

According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics 2002 Report, no CSOs work exclusively on women with disabilities’ integration and rehabilitation. Only two prominent organizations administer rehabilitation programs for the disabled namely Yong Men Christians Association YMCA and Khalil Abu Raya in addition to the Palestinian Disability Union with no special focus on the disabled women making Ola’s idea new and pioneering.

Disabled women make up some of the world’s poorest and most marginalized people in the world and they suffer disproportionately because they are discriminated against both because of their gender and because of their disability. According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 300 million women around the world have mental and physical disabilities. Women constitute 75 percent of the disabled people in low and middle-income countries. Women with disabilities comprise 10 percent of all women worldwide.

 

Like other Arabic societies, discrimination against women still thrives in the Palestinian society in spite of the efforts exerted towards women equality over the last decades. The discrimination against Women with disabilities is even more profound. Women with disabilities in Palestine carry a double burden, one is being a woman the second is being disabled. According to the Palestinian National Information Center, total number of handicapped is 460.63 where 18.148 are females. Despite their significant number, they are the most vulnerable among disabled people yet the least protected. Many of them are hidden and silent, their concerns unknown and their voices unheard.

 

Although 70.9% in Palestine are disabled due to diseases according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics Report in 2002, attitudes towards men with disabilities especially those resulting from injury during the Intifada years are less discriminatory. Disabled women in Palestine are subject of prejudice and daily discrimination on every level, in terms of opportunities for schooling, work, marriage, and status within society.

 

Most people and societies have the tendency to believe that disabled people are genderless. In patriarchal societies, women with disabilities are at a greater disadvantage. Some communities are known to value women for their child bearing and child-rearing role – meaning that their social status is derived from being wives and mothers. In such communities and societies, women with disabilities are of very little value as they are assumed unable to bear and rear children, or even considered asexual beings. 53.3% of disabled women were not married before according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics Report in 2002. Men with disabilities are more likely to ask for help for basic activities such as cooking taking a bath whereas women are expected to take care of themselves and often others as well. Women with disabilities are expected to keep up the regular demands of women’s unpaid work despite their disability. Since the work of cooking and cleaning and raising children and care-giving is not recognized in the first place, there is little assistance available. If the disabled woman cannot be a “good wife” or a “good mother” then she does not meet the requirements the society places on women in general. Accordingly, women with disabilities are marginalized with barriers of access and attitude.

 

Disabled people experience high levels of abuse of all kinds, physical emotional and sexual. Statistics indicate that disabled women are more likely to be sexually abused than non-disabled women are. Because the strong emphasis on physical appearance in every society, disabled women are made to feel less worthy than non-disabled women do. This negative self image, along with the silencing or non belief of victims and the lack of prosecutions of alleged abusers, increase the risk of sexual abuse. Physical and sexual violence against disabled girls and women occurs at alarming rates within families, in institutions and through out the society.

 

Not enough data has been collected, but there is evidence that disabled women and girls face significantly higher rates of violence and discrimination than non-disabled women including the gross abuse of disabled women’s sexual and reproductive rights, their rights to marry and form a family, high rates of physical and sexual violence, gross unemployment, low levels of education and school attendance.

Isolation and confinement based on culture and traditions, attitudes, and prejudices often affect disabled women more than men. This isolation leads to low self-esteem and negative feelings. Lack of appropriate support services and lack of adequate education result in low economic status, which in turn creates dependency on families or care-givers.

 

Moreover, none of the existing CSOs takes into consideration the rights of women with disabilities, some of them provide limited medical care services which usually stops after a certain age and does not reach to all the parts of Palestine. In addition, the services are provided to those who approach the CSOs, those who do not know that the service is there simply does not get it. The existing programs are working only on medical care for disabled people there are some programs for vocational training but it is all dedicated to disabled males only through the Young Men Christians Associations YMCA. Ola’s idea is different in its target group and approach.

 

Reviewing the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics 2002 Report, it does not mention the presence of any CSO that works exclusively on women with disabilities’ integration and rehabilitation. Only two prominent organizations administer rehabilitation programs for the disabled namely Yong Men Christians Association YMCA and Khalil Abu Raya in addition to the Palestinian Disability Union with no special focus on the disabled women. Ola confirms that there are no CSOs in Palestine focusing mainly on disabled women saying, “I am a physically disabled female since 20 years and if there were any existing systems I would have known about it.”

 

Often people living with disabilities are cited as being a drain on the system. When economy is seen as simply the acquisition of money rather than the movement of money through a community, people with disabilities are seen as only “takers.” Apparently, they are a waste of the system. Disabled women generally suffer from poor standards of living due to joblessness and consequently low income. In a society that suffers from very high unemployment rate, it is not likely that a business owner will offer a disabled woman a job especially if she lacks skills and qualifications. The number of disabled Palestinians who are economically active is 25.6% only and the majority is men. On the other hand, almost half of the disabled in Palestine are illiterate and 66.2% of them are women, which is almost double the number of illiterate disabled men. Disabled women are generally poor, illiterate and psychosocially isolated. Disabled women are not usually part of employment debates and initiatives. They are usually at least twice unlikely to get a job.

 

The Palestinian society sympathizes only with political violence victims and tends to forget about the others. The society as a whole has a limited understanding of disability and what it begets to be disabled; accordingly, an accessible environment is almost missing in schools, courts, markets, and even hospitals. Specialized health services are generally missing, and rehabilitation services are very limited where disabled women can hardly access it. Disabled women poor access to health care and rehabilitation is due to poverty, lack of awareness and families’ apathy towards their condition and needs. Disabled women generally suffer from domestic violence, rape, physical assault, and moral degradation. Consequently, they lack self-confidence and refrain from participation public life where they lack any role in mainstream development activities and decision-making. Ola’s mission is to provide those women with the needed tools to be empowered integrated and active members of community.

 

Other structural problems Ola aim at countering are lack of census data on the actual number of women with disabilities and their needs. The Committee on the elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has itself adopted General Recommendation No. 18 on women with disabilities, which requests States parties to include information on women with disabilities in their periodic reports with respect to disabled women’s exercise of several rights contained in the Convention. In a study commissioned by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), sample surveys of periodic reports show that there was little consistent reporting on the double or even  triple discrimination experiences by women with disabilities.

 

Anther obstacle is lack of financial resources to cover the basic medical and rehabilitation requirements of disabled women, Ola is seeking fund through networking with international disability organizations whom she established links with over her professional career. The official registration of her CSO will provide the required legal framework for fundraising. Registration procedures are to be finalized in few months time.

 

Palestine is a country under occupation. Laws, if existent, are not enforced for many political, financial, and social reasons. The Palestinian law for the individuals with special needs was issued in 1999 but the enforcement is still actual not present, there is great need for all local organizations to work together in order to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, no one is ready to start or even confess that the problem really exists. The most recent statistics published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2002 indicated that 1.4% of the Palestinian females are disabled 17% of which lives in refugees camps where the conditions of living are very low. Ola prolonged professional experience dealing with the disabled made her sure that the numbers are much higher than that.

 

Environmental barriers create disability and limit opportunities. Lack of environment adjustments and the absence of accessible buildings hinder disabled women from enjoying the freedom of movement. Transport for all the disabled is an important key to the exercise of citizenship and participation in society. Women in general, and disabled women in particular are less mobile than men, they are less likely to have access to cars; more confined to home due to cultural and social patterns. In Palestine, transportation means are not adjusted to be accessible to the needs of the disabled and personal transport, if any, are usually owned, and used by the male members of the family.

 

The main problem is the lack of awareness in community of the rights of women with disabilities and the nonexistence of supporting systems that work on a definite positive change. The Palestinian community is still not prepared socially to accept change regarding attitudes towards women with disabilities and most of them are left behind, isolated within their own homes, or locked in institutions. The Palestinian Bureau of Statistic report published in 2002 in its third chapter discussing the social and economic condition of the disabled states that the Palestinian disabled women suffer from discrimination leading to poorer living conditions if compared by the disabled Palestinian men. The reports says that women do not have enough access to medical and rehabilitation services which leads to deterioration of their medical conditions and usually death. According to the report, poor access to medical services and rehabilitation is caused by families’ reluctance to register their disabled daughters at the rehabilitation centers fearing shames and disgrace. The Reportaffirms that the reason behind such attitude is the low status of women in the Palestinian community where discrimination is profound on every level and every aspect starting from discriminatory nutritional attitudes towards sons and daughters. There is a great need for a change, and Ola’s mission will be a cry alerting the uninterested society and giving hope to disabled women.

 

The number of medical rehabilitation centers in Palestine reached 97 in year 2000, 15.5% of these centers only is under governmental supervision and the rest is administrated by CSOs and the business sector. The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics Report mentioned that the number of rehabilitation center established and offering services is linked to the political events and Intifada where the number of injuries and disabilities increase due to political violence. Individuals disabled because of diseases, who are largely women, are not usually in the center of attention.

 

According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics Report on individuals with special needs, the unstable political situation in Palestine and lack of centralized political authority gave the space and reason to cater for the disabled and people with special needs due to lack of any governmental medical and rehabilitation program for a very long time. Most of these centers established indoor care centers for the disabled keeping them away from their families and the society creating a gap that reinforced the negative attitude towards them. After the first Intifada, in 1987, according to the report, new organizations were established following a progressive different philosophy most prominent of which are YMCA and Khalil Abu Raya where Ola was employed gaining a profound experience in rehabilitation and medical care for the disabled.

 

The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics Report on individuals with special needs and disabilities stresses the fact that in spite of the rehabilitation and medical services by the CSOs and the government, the disabled in Palestine still suffer from very poor living conditions. There is a severe shortage in the quantity and quality of services provided to the disabled, where most of them lack access to education, employment and suitable medical care or never received rehabilitation before. The existing rehabilitation services focus on disability limitations without tackling the environment surrounding the disabled individual hindering his/her integration within the society. The medical and rehabilitation centers for the disabled in Palestine, according to the Report, address the issue of disability as a matter of needs and services instead of considering it as human rights issue following the global trend.

 

The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics Report on individuals with special needs highlights that the Palestinian citizen sector lacks any actual initiative of integrating the disabled in decision-making positions where they can influence the development mainstream and practice their rights. The actual integration and participation though internationally recognized as a right for the disabled and widely discussed on the local level was never really realized.

 

The gaps regarding services provided for girls and women with disabilities exists in every aspect of life starting from medical care to social integration. Most of the implemented programs for the disabled community give preference to males with disability. Ola works as the director of Disabled Integrating Projects Department at the Spinal Injuries Rehabilitation Center, based on her professional experience, she found it as a challenge to provide equal services and care to men and women due to biased social and professional restrictions. Most beneficiaries of the programs catering for the disabled are men; in spite of the fact that many of the programs are “gender neutral,” but the pressing culture of discrimination against women affect selecting beneficiaries.

 

Palestinian women with disabilities face a double set of prejudices, based on gender and disability. Our community often sees them in terms of stereotypes: childlike, dependent, incompetent, asexual, unable to take on the role of worker, sexual partner, or mother. As a result, they are left confused about who they are, and who they can become.

 

To date, the rights of women with disability remain a marginalized issue. Men who got their disability while taking part in demonstrations or Intifada events usually have full access to services, medications and civil rights, no doubt. Disabled women are at the end of the society priority list, if they are on it at the first place. Hence, women with disabilities remain not only vulnerable and disadvantaged but in many cases isolated within the community.

Women with disabilities in Palestine and the Levant area are deprived of all sorts of dedicated services, as a disabled woman herself, Ola went through a lot of hardships and was faced with obstacles and challenges to reach where she is today as a recognized professional in the Palestinian citizen sector. She feels responsible towards attaining a better, more friendly and accessible future for other disabled women

 

Ola’s objectives are to actively promote and advocate the integration of women with disabilities in all aspects of social, economic, political, and cultural life. She is seeking to have her organization as the national representative of women with disabilities in Palestine with the aim of covering the Levant through undertaking systemic advocacy, approaching policy makers and providing disabled women in Palestine with services, support, information, and education. Networking with like-minded CSO is also one of her tools to ensure support of her mission on the community level.

Realizing her objectives, Ola is following double route strategy. First route is to advocate for disabled women human and civil rights through national and regional advocacy, and awareness raising campaigns. Second route is to provide holistic services to Palestinian disabled women.. Ola institutional framework to implement her strategy and spread her idea is a CSO established and managed mainly by disabled women. This is the first and only CSO for disabled women and managed by disabled women, not only in the Levantine but in the Arab World.

 

Ola’s idea proposes solutions to the plight of disabled women in a very realistic, practical manner based on actual experiences of the disabled women themselves who, led by Ola, are a role model of empowered disabled women and a living proof that change is possible. Ola is convinced that the common suffering, commitment, experience, and skills of the board members are cornerstones supporting her to achieve her mission.

 

Ola worked on parallel levels to achieve her goals, she started the prolonged paperwork process to register her CSO and the same she implemented various fieldwork activities with disabled women.

 

Registering the CSO officially, Ola was faced by various challenges, Ola established contact and partnership with governmental organizations like the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Social Affairs to facilitate the delayed registration procedures until she officially registered her CSO. Ola CSO premise is accessible for the disabled needs and she was able to acquire funding to cover its rent for six months.

 

Working with the disabled women in Palestine, Ola was faced by the fact there is no available database on the disabled women. To ensure appropriate planning and dissemination of services, Ola had to establish her own database. The fact that there is no solid reference to go to when it comes to accurate information about disability especially among women is an obstacle. Ola collected the available statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, local CSOs, and the Disabled Union. Ola developeda questionnaire filled out by women with disabilities aiming to highlight their main needs, as she wanted to know more detailed information regarding the medical and social status. She interviewed women with disabilities from different regions from Palestine focusing on the needs and the gaps in existing services. Ola organized several focus group discussions with women with disabilities discussing the needs and current situation of the women and their suggestions for solutions. Her fieldwork and interaction with the disabled and their families helped Ola to develop a priority list of disabled women in need based on the medical and economic conditions.

 

Ola also asked professionals involved in catering for the disabled and she discussed how her idea would solve the problems faced by women with disabilities from different perspectives. Ola, through her CSO, aims at establishing the first resource center in Palestine surveying the number and actual needs of women with disabilities, which will be the cornerstone in working towards the elimination of the causes and multidimensional consequences of disability among women. Such endeavor will help Ola provide direct individual care to help the disabled women in need to start over as active members. Services will include medical and rehabilitation assessment and care, psychosocial consultations, empowerment training, academic rehabilitation, and vocational training, social activities to support integration, family education, and therapy.

 

Providing specialized medical and rehabilitation services for disabled women responding to their urgent needs is another major activity. Ola designed a comprehensive package of services to be provided for disabled women tailored based on individual type of disability, needs, and interests. The services include psychological consultation, capacity-building, skills enhancement, self-advocacy training, which is teaching women with disabilities to advocate for their own needs. She is working on the grass roots level to generate knowledge, information, and skills to secure the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in the societal mainstream. In addition to that, she is developing inclusive outreach strategies to reduce social isolation experienced in marginalized women’s communities. On another hand, Ola is providing training services to women with disabilities developing their abilities to take up socially responsible and productive roles in civil society, just like their male counterparts and others.

 

Consistent advocacy and lobbying is an effective tool to achieve required pressure to enforce legal amendments and influence policy makers to acknowledge the rights of women with disabilities and their integration in society. Accordingly, Ola started gearing her advocacy campaign to raise societal awareness and change predominant attitude towards women with disabilities. Lack of social acceptance by families of girls with disabilities to admit that they have a disabled daughter is another obstacle, which Ola is facing by awareness raising campaigns explaining the facts of disabilities and paving the way to the activities of her CSO, which will work on empowering these disabled women and provide them with services. Ola is keeping everybody informed of the things that women with disabilities experience everyday. Ola is sending a message emphasizing that disability is something that affects all of us, not only people living with disabilities.

 

Waging a national campaign advocating for the rights of disabled women in Palestine is not only new, it is also very much needed. The advocacy campaign is to serve two objectives, to raise the community awareness on the plight of women with disabilities and to place disabled women rights on the Palestinian political agenda. Ola will uncover facts of discrimination by families, governmental service providers and the whole society. Most of the families hide form others their disabled daughter who is always reminded of being an incomplete useless member of the family, as she needs to be taken care of instead of serving her male family members. Government public schools refuse enrolling disabled students though it is legally allowed. Medical centers and hospitals officials distribute medications and accessibility equipment to disabled men and if any left over, they give to the disabled women. Such an attitude of discrimination is not legal or humane and it has to be altered. The change will start with the knowledge.

 

Ola’s advocacy campaign objective is to place the ever forgotten rights of disabled women on to the front burner of Palestinian politics and public discourse. Legislations should be amended and governmental services, especially education and health services should be provided to all with no discrimination. The situation in occupied Palestine entails political and economic issues to be priorities for the policy and decision makers, yet, disabled women rights is a matter of survival.

 

Another main challenge is the lack of financial resources which requires extensive fundraising efforts. Ola is introducing her idea and CSO mission to the international community through her interaction with interested parties in international conferences and events where she travels mostly on her expense. Ola represented Palestine in an international conference held in Dubai in 2006 and highlighted the current situation for women with disabilities in Palestine. She attended the Arab Women and Disability Conference held under the umbrella of the Arab League in Cairo on July 2006 where she represented the citizen sector and came with her husband, who helps her with her physical disability on her expense. Ola utilize such venues to network, fund raise, exchange expertise and get updated on the latest services provided for women with disability. On September 2006, Ola participated in an international training program on Leadership Skills for Disabled Women in Sweden. Recently on December 2006, Ola participated in a regional meeting held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates by Inclusion International discussing strategic plans to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Ola created partnerships with international networks working in the field of women with disabilities in Germany and Sweden opening a window for further cooperation and support.

 

Ola dreams for disabled women to be always able to find a positive outlook, to build useful skills they can use and be independent. She dreams of a world where disabled women are considered equals. Making her dream a reality, Ola developed her strategy focusing on how can women’s rights organizations assist with breaking down some of the barriers that disabled women face on daily basis and make them more visible to the society through integration and active participation.Last December, Ola headed a brainstorming session where 50 women with disabilities met to discuss the CSO future activities and plans.

 

With her CSO officially registered, Ola is rolling out her activities on every level where she is conducting a nation wide survey on women with disabilities, categorizing beneficiaries of different rehabilitation and training services, in addition she is contacting Arab media representatives to present the plight of disabled women to the public.

Ola was born in Naples, one of the major cities in Palestine. She was only twelve when she had to deal with a dramatic change in her life and accept a permanent disability. After being disabled, Ola had to stay home for three years with no schooling. Those years made Ola feel marginalized and useless, accordingly, Ola decided to go back to school despite of her disability.

 

Unfortunately, Ola could not find a school where she lived to accept her as a disabled student. Not giving up, Ola moved to Bethlehem away from her family and lived with an English woman where she enrolled at a private school. Such a step was nontraditional for an Arab girl let alone disabled. Convincing a traditional Arab family to let their daughter leave hometown to get schooling at such a young age was not any easy job especially if she is disabled. Nevertheless, Ola’s determination and willingness to have a better life through education was tough enough to convince her family.

 

The private school enrolled her at the beginning as a listener only, but after the first semester when she got the highest grades among all school students, Ola was accepted as a regular student. Her tuition fees were too much to ask for her family jeopardizing her dream to complete her school years. Fighting for her right, she went to the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs and asked for a scholarship as she is an A student. Since she also needed non-tuition fees as she lived away from home, Ola had to find a funding source. Working with the disabled students during her school years, Ola got associated with a German organization for the disabled who were eager to grant her a full scholarship recognizing her brilliance and active role within the disabled students’ community in Palestine fighting for accessible school facilities for the disabled. Also at her high school, Ola worked with the physiotherapy department at Bethlehem University to include disabled characters in some of the well-known children’s stories.

 

Those years were the most challenging period in Ola’s life where she had to deal with her disability and fight for her rights at the same time. However, she was able to achieve a lot. She gained her independences, adapted to her new physical limitations and learned about what her new conditions entails and accepted it, and changed the attitudes of the people in her close circle about the abilities of women with disabilities. Ola obtained her masters from Beirzeit University at Ramallah on Project Management in 2003.

 

During her university years, Ola was faced again by the problem of inaccessibility University campuses to the disabled so she started to advocate for her right in an accessible campus. Her advocacy efforts got her a place on the campus construction committee. Ola was assigned by the administration to work with engineers to adapt the University campus to the needs of the disabled, which involved a lot of planning and supervision.

 

Being employed at a rehab center, she showed very good fundraising skills and she proved to be a dedicated employee where her physical disability never stopped her from doing the required fieldwork. Trying to reach the place she should be to finish her work, Ola realized she needed a car and of course especially tailored to her disability. Ola wrote a personal assistance proposal to her network of associates where she was granted a car for the disabled by an international organization. Finding no one to teach her how to drive, Ola went to Israel to get her driving lessons especially tailored to the disabled. To drive in Palestine, she needed a driving license that was simply too much for the responsible official to comprehend when he came to know she is disabled. Ola again refused to give up and kept knocking on all doors until she managed to meet with the former Palestinian President who gave his orders to issue her a driving license and again Ola was able to achieve her goal.

 

Ola is married and the mother of a two-year-old child who relieves her daily struggle in life. Again, getting married was not an easy step for Ola. Ola and a colleague occupational therapist fell in love, which instead of being blessed was rejected by their families. Her family thought that this too much for her to handle and his family could not understand how their perfectly healthy son will marry a physically disabled woman who could not even feed her self. Friends and colleagues only attended Ola’s wedding and in spite of the rejection she is very happily married for nine years now where each one of them understands the potentials and the limitations of the other.

 

Her pregnancy and baby delivery was a struggle too, at the beginning the doctors were shocked by her desire to have a baby as if denying her motherhood right. They saw her as woman who could not take care of herself and consequently she would not be able to take care of the baby. Due to lack of care, her first pregnancy resulted in a premature baby who died three days after delivery where the gynecologist could not handle a paralyzed mom to have a natural delivery and had to give her a Caesarean surgery. Determined to practice her motherhood right, Ola got pregnant again, went to Israel to have better antenatal care, and gave birth to healthy baby boy Mahdi.

 

At present, she is responsible for the department of development and public relations at one of the best rehabilitation centers in Palestine where she have more than nine years experience in preparing and managing projects related to medical and rehabilitation services to the disable. She participated in many programs working on the development of disability management on the national level. Her vision is to be able to create a sustainable program that serves the needs and rights of women with disability.

 

The fact that Ola is disabled and that she had to fight for her own basic rights of health, education, employment and marriage made her realize the importance of changing the societal attitude and the governmental infrastructure when dealing with disabled women.

 

Her professional experience in the field of rehabilitation and catering for the disabled, interacting with international agencies and policy makers influenced her way of thinking and the draw up of her strategy to achieve her mission to make disabled women more visible and empowered.

 

Through out her life, Ola fought for everything, and decided to alter the perception of everyone who gave her right as a favor or grant not as a due right.