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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 May 2018

'I have had to defy norms, face rejection and overcome obstacles'

In many parts of the world, disabled people are not regarded as equal members of society, writes Raya Al Jadir

In my childhood, writes Raya Al Jadir, “I never used a wheelchair, I was always on my tricycle”. Courtesy of Raya Al Jadir
In my childhood, writes Raya Al Jadir, “I never used a wheelchair, I was always on my tricycle”. Courtesy of Raya Al Jadir

I am a young British Iraqi woman, a PhD candidate and the founder of a disability lifestyle magazine, which is written for and by disabled Arabs. None of this was deemed possible or even realistic when I was growing up, precisely because I am disabled.

To be born with a disability you are often cast as a “failure” in the eyes of society. As a woman you are also seen as a “burden”. Blame is placed on the mother as though she has failed to complete her duty of “bearing a healthy child”.

I was born in Mosul, where I lived a happy childhood for the first ten years of my life. I knew I was different to other children, but it didn't matter to me. Although disability caused me many struggles and led to many rejections, it was something that I never fully grasped until my family and I moved to the United Kingdom.

My childhood years were probably harder for my parents than me, even though they knew my diagnosis when I was just five years old. It was clear I wouldn't walk, but there was a general feeling among my family and friends that I'd be cured and would eventually be able to. I am not sure if that was for their benefit or mine.

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I think on the whole it was really my mum's life that was most affected at first, not mine, as she ran from one doctor to another, both at home and abroad. She even found it difficult to find a school that would accept me, which is something she only confessed recently. She felt guilty every time people made comments about me, but the whole time she protected me from them. She could never escape either, I was enrolled in the school where she taught, so even there the comments followed her. My dad spoilt me rotten and in a sense the way he treated me to whatever I wanted made me realise that if I put my mind to something I could get it no matter what my situation was.

Back then, I never used a wheelchair, I was always on my tricycle, which took me everywhere I wanted. I fell off so many times during the day, but I always got back on it no matter how much I knew it would harm me. It feels like I still have bumps on my head to this day.

My tricycle was my lifeline. I had convinced everyone that it was magical and could fly, but only if I was the pilot. But the truth came out when kids from my pre-school knocked me off my flying tricycle to have a go themselves. I landed on the floor but I couldn't get up and everyone found out that I couldn't walk. Not one to let me shy away from problems, my mother put me back on the tricycle and made me face the kids, my tears and shame visible to all.

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My siblings too were always there to help me experience what my physical limitations did not allow me to try on my own. They nurtured me and never allowed me to feel belittled or unable.

Yet, even now, I don't feel very comfortable with the term disabled in Arabic. I am always happy to use the exact term in English, which made me wonder why. Recently I worked it out. Upon launching Disability Horizons Arabic, I met, interviewed and interacted with people. Speaking with them, I was reminded of my childhood where escaping or ignoring disability was the way I was taught to live, because being disabled, and saying that you were, meant some people treated you as worthless.

In most countries, disabled people are not regarded as equal members of society and are encouraged to defy their disability rather than embrace it. It is the enemy that must be conquered, whereas in reality it is the people's attitude and infrastructure that must be defied as in them lies the limitation and not in disability.

Throughout my life, I have had to defy the norm, face rejection and overcome obstacles.