COMBATTING PREJUDICE AGAINST DISABLED IRAQIS: The Diwaniya educator giving voice to the voiceless

By Manar al-Zubaidi in Diwaniya

Heba Mohammad al-Shabani, 41, holds a bachelor’s degree in education and has had many job offers. But the director of the Al Amal Institute for deaf and mute people in Diwaniya has never wavered from her work with children with disabilities. For many of their families, she is an almost saintly figure, who saved them and their children from a life of discrimination and misery.

The exact number of people with disabilities in Iraq is unknown but according to the Iraqi authorities, in 2015, there were close to 5,000 students at institutes to help deaf and mute people. By 2018, this number had decreased to 1,383.

At the Al Amal Institute, programs include educational, artistic and cultural activities as well as workshops that help prepare the attendees for working life. Special attention is paid to deaf or mute females because their lives are doubly hard in Iraq.

As Human Rights Watch has noted, Iraq’s “1951 civil code gives the power to judicial authorities to deprive persons with certain type of disabilities, including intellectual, psychosocial, visual, and hearing disabilities, of their ‘legal capacity’. The civil code also uses “Offensive and derogatory language to describe people with visual, intellectual, sensory and psychosocial disabilities.”

In a country where women are often at the mercy of their families and a conservative society when it comes to choices around marriage, work or independence, a disabled female is particularly disadvantaged.

At Al Amal, girls are trained in occupations – such as sewing, food preparation or handicrafts – that would allow them to become more empowered.

Al-Shabani herself learned sign language and is also a certified interpreter for the court in Diwaniya. She has been able to intervene in court cases where a deaf or mute person is undergoing divorce or marriage proceedings.

She has also taken part in international courses to learn about other problems like autism, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, and has spent time teaching in other countries like Jordan.

“Participating in these courses enabled me to learn about the Jordanian experience, which I consider a pioneering and mature one, in caring for people with hearing disabilities,” she says.

“Because of some of the special problems that some children at the Institute suffer from, I decided to study other conditions related to autism, learning difficulties, and linguistic and developmental issues, so as to understand their conditions and provide assistance,” al-Shabani says.

Because of the discrimination that disabled people face in Iraq, they can have many problems. For deaf and mute children even attending school can be problematic.

This is because the convention for the care and education of persons with disabilities in Iraq will only ever grant deaf and mute children a primary education certificate. And this only qualifies them to enter a vocational rehabilitation institute.

This is why al-Shabani has found herself defending the rights of the disabled and their right to education in particular. The teacher lobbied Diwaniya authorities to open a school in the province that would allow disabled children to move into higher education and enable them to eventually study at tertiary level.

In 2019, the Ministry of Education allowed graduates of Al Amal to take part in secondary school exams. Two of the young men who graduated eventually came back to work at the institute as volunteers and there al-Shabani coached them through university entrance exams.

But it was touch and go. “I will never forget the first day of the exams, which was very difficult,” al-Shabani recounts. “The adjudicator of the exams was banned for both students because one of them was wearing a hearing aid and the other had a cochlear implant.”

He thought they were cheating because they were wearing “headphones,” she explains.

“Each of the students was taking the exam in a different hall so I was rushing between both halls,” al-Shabani says. “But I was able to intervene at the right time.”

Both of the men scored highly – over 80% – and were able to continue their studies.

Related Articles

Back to top button