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A new push for rights of disabled

The UN has praised Kuwait for the way it cares for its 27,000 people registered with a disability, but rights advocates say more must be done.

KUWAIT CITY // Legislation that would provide a guaranteed job, more pay, extra financial support and a top-notch education for Kuwaitis with disabilities may sound promising, but Hashem Taqi, the director of the country's disability society, said the proposed laws do not go far enough to protect the disabled from discrimination. Five MPs presented a draft bill to parliament this month, and a parliamentary committee is also discussing new legislation. Any amendments to the law for the disabled would be the first since it was passed in 1996.

One of the MPs, Hasan Johar, said the law needed updating in order to "treat the handicapped as regular people and benefit from them as human resources". Mr Johar said those with disabilities had missed out on the salary increases other sectors of society had received. He also wants to provide more benefits to the parents of the disabled, modify their houses at no cost and improve their education to international standards.

Kuwait was the first Gulf country to legislate for the disabled, and the United Nations Development Programme said in a report last year the country "plays a leading role among Arab states" in caring for its 27,000 registered disabled people. All Kuwaitis receive benefits from the government in the form of generous pensions, marriage bonuses, free health care and education. Disabled citizens get even more, including up to 7,000 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh90,000) every year for private schooling.

Public schools and most private schools provide no facilities for the disabled, forcing many to attend expensive, special-needs schools. There are about 22 primary and secondary schools that provide services for the disabled in Kuwait. The country's disabled society, which has 10 per cent of its 1.5 million dinar budget paid for by the government, also provides day-care and residential facilities for about 550 children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome and severe mental retardation.

Its director, Mr Hashem al Taqi, said some MPs and parents were "very emotional and they go way too far" in trying to get segregated services for the disabled. He said many MPs have pushed for special schools, clinics and clubs, but "we are not supposed to isolate them". "Most of the public don't understand the philosophy behind care for the disabled," he said. "We have to be together, because the disabled person has to be a part of society, he's one of us."

Although there is a great amount of public support among Kuwaitis for the disabled, they face other barriers to integration, such as accessibility. "Ninety per cent of the entrance ramps are wrong," Mr al Taqi said, adding that public buildings, cinemas and clubs rarely have Braille or other symbols needed by the blind and deaf. Mr al Taqi was at the UN's headquarters in New York when the convention on rights for the disabled was finalised in 2006. Kuwait had been a key part of the discussions and debate and had "worked for so many years to change the law for disabled people around the globe", he said.

The convention's purpose was to "promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and promote respect for their inherent dignity", the document says. It obliges countries to modify existing laws that discriminate against the disabled, and to make new laws to implement the convention. "It was a special occasion for all of us; in fact, it was like a carnival," Mr al Taqi said.

But their celebrations were short-lived. Instead of putting ink to paper, the government opted out, making Kuwait the only Arab country not to become a signatory. Mr al Taqi said there had been two parts of the treaty that the government had baulked at. The convention states that all disabled children must be registered so that they receive citizenship (many families do not do this as they do not think their child will need legal papers for travel, education or military service).

But the Kuwaiti authorities mistakenly thought this meant all disabled children born in Kuwait must get Kuwaiti citizenship, no matter where their parents were from, Mr al Taqi said. Kuwait, like the other Gulf countries, does not offer citizenship to its large foreign workforce except in exceptional circumstances. Second, according to Islam and the laws of Kuwait, Muslims cannot give an adopted child their family name. Mr al Taqi said that meant an adopted child could not inherit anything from his or her parents. The UN convention stipulates that an adopted child must take on the name of his or her adopted family.

Mr al Taqi said that even Saudi Arabia had signed the convention. "We are not more Muslim than Saudi. We cooked the UN convention and when it was ready to serve, we didn't even get the chance to taste it." Mr Johar said local laws needed to be a changed so that they could support international obligations. "If we reach that standard we can go ahead and force the government to sign these kinds of treaties," he said. "If we signed the treaty when our local laws are not to the international level, it would be a kind of embarrassment.

"Sooner is better but let's do it with better preparation," Mr Johar said, adding that there might be more momentum when parliament resumed after its summer break in October. Whether the treaty makes it back on the government's agenda or not, the sportsmen at Kuwait Disabled Sports Club are generally happy with the care they receive from the state, although some believe other Gulf countries are offering better health care.

Hazzaa al Enezi, a table tennis coach, said the benefits were so good that citizens tried to get disabled status "even if they get a small portion of their baby finger amputated". The sports club has a pool and an athletics track and facilities for disabled games such as wheelchair basketball and goalball, a sport for the blind in which three-man teams throw a ball packed with bells past each other.

The government pays for national teams, which include non-Kuwaitis, to compete around the world. Mr al Enezi, who has been confined to a wheelchair since contracting polio, said: "Kuwait used to have the best care in the Arab world, but we're falling behind. Maybe the UAE is better than us now," he said. His training partner, Hamed al Enezi, a quadriplegic who is from the same tribe, said: "We are a rich country - the government can do more. If you are married, the government gives you a house, but many disabled people do not marry, so it's tough for us.

"In the parliament, they always talk about rights, but they don't improve them," he said. jcalderwood@thenational.ae

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