Roula Helou was four when a car accident made her paraplegic, forcing her into a wheelchair. Back then it looked as if she would have little chance of accessing the same opportunities as other children without physical disabilities, but 33 years on, she is the popular presenter of Ma Mnekhtelif (We Don’t Disagree), a TV program on OTV, has published a book of poetry and holds a degree in Arabic language and literature from the Lebanese University.
Of the 10 to 15 percent of the Lebanese population living with disability, only 17 percent are employed, of which Helou is one. Based on statistics from the social affair’s ministry, nearly 86,000 citizens are currently registered as disabled, although this figure does not take into account those who did not apply for government support owing to lack of awareness or stigma.
“I represent a success story,” Helou admits. “But I have a well-educated family who supported me all the way through and I am very ambitious.” Without the same kind of support and personal strength many others affected by disabilities are struggling to access employment and equal rights.
This is despite the disabled rights law passed by the Parliament 14 years ago. Covering a broad range of issues impacting the lives of disabled citizens, the law remains largely unenforced, with many of its provisions not yet implemented by decrees.
“Every person should be able to participate in all aspects of life but there are societies that make this impossible,” Helou says. Lebanon seems to be one of these, as ensuring disabled people’s full access to work, social and public spaces is not a governmental priority.
“If you want to have an equal society you need to work for that,” Helou says. “There are no excuses and the political situation is not a valid reason not to do it.”
Helou recently announced her intention to sue Middle East Airlines for being denied access to a flight. By law, disabled passengers should not only be admitted on aircrafts but also given a 50 percent discount on MEA tickets.
At the social affairs ministry, Marie El-Hajj, head of the department of handicapped people’s affairs, says her office is overwhelmed with more assistance requests than they can satisfy.
“There is no budget and demand always exceeds our possibilities,” she admits. “This sometimes happens even for children who need special access to schooling.”
Hyam Sakr, who works in the same department, says foreign donors are particularly important in financing inclusion programs, especially in education. “We are currently working on a program supported by the Italian Embassy [to improve] access to education for children with hearing and mental disabilities,” she says. “We need these collaborations and we have to work together with foreign donors.”
Ironically, when Executive visited the ministry, one of the elevators was out of service, forcing a woman with reduced mobility to struggle up the stairs to the second floor where the department is located.
The accessibility of public buildings and workplaces is a major issue for people living with disabilities.
According to Sylvana Lakkis, general director of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union (LPHU), physical handicaps account for most disabilities in Lebanon, followed by intellectual and sensory challenges.
It was not until December 2011 that the government finally issued decree 7194/15, making it mandatory for new buildings aimed for public use to comply with the minimum criteria of accessibility. This includes reserved parking spaces, accessible entrances, availability of wheelchair ramps, and adequate elevators and toilets.
The decree has been in force for just over two years and only applies to development projects registered after its enforcement, many of which have still not been started. This is why, Lakkis says, there is still no data available on violations and work suspensions — required for projects that fall under the decree but do not comply with it.
In the capital, Lakkis says, few buildings comply with the law when it comes to accessibility. Most that do are major hospitality assets in affluent neighborhoods, such as the Crowne Plaza, the Phoenicia and the Holiday Inn hotels. The buildings hosting the municipality and some school premises are also compliant.
“In Beirut we even had complaints from small businesses that did not want to provide accessible toilets on every floor of their venues,” Lakkis says.
No financial penalties have been established for developers who do not comply with accessibility standards, though this does not necessarily make the law weaker.
“If builders only had to pay a penalty, they would rather do that and keep constructing than comply with the law, just as employers do when they don’t want to observe the quota,” says Lakkis, referring to a 3 percent quota in favour of disabled employees imposed on companies with over 100 staff.
The new regulations represent a step forward after the accessibility provisions contained in the 220/2000 law were ignored for several years. “The law stated that all environments should be made accessible in six years time,” Lakkis says. Eight years after that deadline, this still hasn’t happened.
A first attempt to implement the law with a decree failed, as it tried to target both new and existing buildings, causing the LPHU to suggest a change of policy. “We thought that targeting new buildings only would facilitate a response … and make it easier for old buildings to follow the example.”
The current regulations, Lakkis says, were based on a decree influenced by a study on the accessibility of polling stations carried out by the LPHU ahead of the 2009 elections.
“When we say polling stations we are talking about schools,” she says. “And only 5 of a total 1,600 we monitored across the country complied with the minimum accessibility standards.” The public sector, she continues, has been particularly bad at observing these standards in its premises.
Build for all
In the LPHU director’s office, a poster reads “Build for all. Don’t disable my ability,” and depicts an old man with a cane, a person in a wheelchair and a mother pushing a stroller.
“This was part of a campaign we did in 2006, after the Israeli bombings, to make sure that the new buildings which were about to be reconstructed would be accessible to everyone.” The southern Beirut district of Haret Hreik, among the worst hit during the 2006 conflict, was also one of the main target areas of this campaign.
Developers who reconstructed the district were asked to include at least one apartment accessible to disabled residents as well as proper entrances and elevators in buildings with 20 or more residential units.
“This is according to international standards,” Lakkis says. “In other countries developers don’t even think of building houses which are not accessible, as buyers want to be able to live in them even when they grow old. So it is in the developers’ interest to build accessible apartments.”
In 2012, the LPHU took part in a study that influenced a guide on handicapped people’s access to buildings, crafted by Majal, the University of Balamand’s academic urban observatory.
“We based this guide on the idea that accessibility is a basic right,” says Majal’s head Serge Yazigi. According to Yazigi, criteria on making buildings accessible should be revised every few years and enforced by the government. “The solution to this issue is a political decision,” he says. “You need to impose these rules by creating tools to implement and verify compliance.”
Even if a tighter control over buildings’ accessibility was implemented, this may not be sufficient, as real estate developers in Lebanon are confronted with practical issues ranging from material supply to economic support.
“Incentives, like the ones given by the central bank for energy efficiency, may help,” Yazigi says. “But you need to get the private sector involved in the process because, let’s be realistic, this is not a priority for the public sector.”
Yazigi explains that part of the research carried out for the publication of the guide focused on the materials available to developers within the Lebanese market. “We found out that high-quality non-slippery material for horizontal and inclined surfaces, for instance, is not available in the country,” he says. “We need to encourage importers and show them that there is a market here.”
Mansour Aziz, who runs the Mezyan restaurant in Hamra, is among entrepreneurs who were not discouraged by the lack of awareness and incentives to make their businesses accessible to disabled clients.
When the owner of the building decided not to renew his lease this year, he had to find another venue in the same area and decided to make changes so that it would be handicapped accessible.
Even though he is only a tenant in the new premises, Aziz knocked down the original bathroom walls in order to make the room accessible to people in wheelchairs. It cost around $1,000, which, he says, was not a huge financial effort, though renovations took some space from the 170 square meter venue.
“I think businesses don’t do it because it eats up space,” he says. “In my case, I knew I was not obliged by laws or by the market, but I felt it was feasible and it was not going to change the outlook of the place so I said why not.”
Aziz said that he thought of building an accessible toilet after seeing clients struggling to get to the restrooms in his restaurant, located upstairs. “I know people who have to use wheelchairs and that has definitely influenced me in my choice,” he explains. “There was a customer in particular who was a regular and he had problems walking. I watched him having to go upstairs every time he needed to use the toilet and that really killed me.”
The standards for accessible restrooms include the height of the sink, the 1.5 meter ‘rotation circle’ required for people on wheelchairs to move from their wheelchair to the toilet, and supporting rails. Aziz said that he called the LPHU to get advice on how to meet these standards.
The LPHU also assists entrepreneurs wanting to employ disabled workers. Based on government data, 18.5 percent of Lebanese with disabilities are aged 19 to 34 and 35.6 percent are between 35 and 65. Although of working age, only a minimum proportion of these people are currently employed.
“Social security should exercise stronger pressure on companies,” says the social affairs ministry’s El-Hajj, referring to the possibility for businesses to simply pay a fine to be exempted from the obligation. “These companies should not be authorized to operate.”
According to Doha Yahfoufi, who coordinates a project on economic and social inclusion at the LPHU, making companies aware of the potential loss they are facing for not being accessible to disabled workers and clients has so far proved more effective than simply relying on advocacy and laws.
“We don’t say to them: please, hire some disabled people, they need a job. We explain to them how much they can benefit … how convenient it is for them to invest in making their premises accessible and how much they would potentially be losing.” After all, Yahfoufi says, employers need to hire “the right people in the right places. And here we are talking about workers with capacities and who can be competitive.”
The LPHU helps companies reform their premises. “We make an assessment, tell them what they need to do and follow up. We also help them find where to buy what they need, be it special handles for the toilets or an electric lift.”
The project coordinator says companies are concerned about the costs they will have to face in order to comply with accessibility standards. “They do ask about costs, but most of the time it is not high and they will benefit from accessibility,” she explains. “They also have a return in terms of image.” Yahfoufi says that 83 percent of Lebanon’s disabled population are unemployed and only indirectly supported by the government. “The government pays different institutions to provide them with services such as education and workshops, but this is not the kind of support we are asking for because it doesn’t help making anyone independent,” she says. “Most people with disabilities have to rely financially on their families and those who try to find a job face many barriers and a widespread stigma.” One institution providing this kind of support is the Lebanese Welfare Association for the Handicapped, an NGO offering rehabilitation services to the disabled. “You need a lot of strategic planning and lobbying for things to change,” says Zeina Assi, who’s in charge of the organization’s project management and public relations. “But how can we have that when public buildings themselves are not accessible?”
According to Assi, inaccessible environments reinforce a stigma against disabled people, as they appear incapable of living a normal life. “This is not true: disabilities can be overcome,” she says. “We even have a football team of amputees from cluster mines. If there was accessibility, all disabled people would live their lives to the fullest. They have that ability.”
In 2007, Lebanon signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which covers a broad range of rights such as equal job access, freedom of movement and healthcare.
The convention, however, has still not been ratified by Parliament. This, according to Assi, means that the status of disabled people’s rights in Lebanon is not monitored at an international level and the government may be less interested in enforcing relevant laws. “At least once the treaty is ratified they will have to report to the UN,” she says.