Protecting the rights of Saudis with disabilities


Protecting the rights of Saudis with disabilities

On Dec. 22, the Saudi Transit Police towed some 443 vehicles across the Kingdom that were parked illegally in spaces reserved for people with special needs. The campaign was meant to send several important messages.
The first is that the law must be obeyed and that those who violate it will be cited and fined. The campaign also stressed the importance of being a socially responsible member of society. Finally, it was consistent with the government’s commitment to meeting the needs and protecting the rights of Saudis with disabilities, and giving them every opportunity to succeed.
Adequately addressing the needs of people with mental and physical disabilities is a challenge that many nations struggle with. A careful observation of Saudi culture over the past two decades suggests that Saudis in general are more aware of the challenges that people with special needs and their families face, and are more appreciative of the positive contributions they make to society.
Government institutions and private initiatives and organizations focused on providing educational, medical or job-training services to people with special needs have done a commendable job of addressing the needs of those with physical and mental disabilities in the Kingdom.
While initial efforts focused on physical disabilities such as visual impairment, mental and learning disabilities have received equal attention in recent years. Government agencies that have specialized programs or departments catering to the needs of adults and children with disabilities include the Ministries of Health, Education and Civil Service, as well as the General Presidency of Youth Welfare.
Saudi laws and regulations have long sought to protect the rights of people with mental and physical disabilities. The Saudi Basic Law that was promulgated in 1992 explicitly says that the state protects all human rights and prevents discrimination of any sort, including that based on “disability.”
Article 27 in the Basic Law says, “The State shall guarantee the rights of the citizens and their families in cases of emergency, illness, disability and old age. The State shall support the Social Insurance Law and encourage organizations and individuals to participate in philanthropic activities.”
In 2000, specific regulation was issued to address the rights and needs of “handicapped” people. In a sign of increased awareness, even the terminology describing mental and physical disability has changed. Gone are hurtful terms such as “cripples,” “handicapped” and mental “retardation.” Instead, an Arabic phrase meaning people “with special needs” has become the most commonly used.
Over the years, the Ministries of Health, Education and Civil Service, and the Commission for Sports, have instituted various programs and created institutions that provide specialized care that children with physical or mental disabilities often need to increase their chances of leading productive lives as adults. Various initiatives have been implemented to address the needs of children with autism.

Government institutions and private initiatives and organizations focused on providing educational, medical or job-training services to people with special needs have done a commendable job of addressing the needs of those with physical and mental disabilities in the Kingdom.

Fahad Nazer

At the same time, the Education Ministry has provided incentives to teachers focusing on special education, being fully aware of the specialized and extended training necessary to educate children with special needs.
The parents of children with physical or mental disability often struggle either financially or emotionally. Public and private institutions provide educational materials and counseling for parents and caregivers, providing them with the tools to help them cope with the stresses of dealing with a child with special needs.
As some of the social stigmas associated with mental and physical disability have receded, parents, caregivers and administrators of various rehabilitation programs have tried to integrate children with special needs into regular school programs. Whether one lives in Saudi Arabia, the US or any other country in the world, it has become routine to interact with people with disabilities, both adults and children.
I, like most people, have observed first hand the challenges of raising a child with a disability. A number of years ago, I worked with a colleague whose daughter was autistic. Although he lived in the US, which arguably has the best health care in the world, his daughter’s rehabilitation was so extensive that he had to choose his place of residence based on whether the county he lived in offered the specialized care his daughter needed. Although his daughter was clearly gifted in some ways — she could solve a jigsaw puzzle in mere minutes while the pieces were turned upside down — she was unable to speak, instead forming her own language that only her parents understood. At some point, her mother had to put her own promising career as a physicist on hold to help her daughter’s rehabilitation.
Helping people with special needs, especially children, can be incredibly rewarding. A relative of mine, Dr. Tarik Nazer, is a dentist at the Security Forces Hospital in Makkah, where he specializes in providing dental care for children with special needs.
Like many Saudis, he chronicles both his triumphs and challenges at work on social media. While his posts suggest that the work is physically grueling — as work in the health care sector often is — it is also clearly gratifying. Over the years, many of his patients and their families have left him small tokens of appreciation in the form of small gift baskets or thank-you notes.
Saudi leaders have long proclaimed that the Kingdom’s greatest asset is its human capital. Vision 2030 is intent on providing every Saudi man, woman and child with an opportunity to succeed. There is little doubt that Saudis with special needs will also be given every opportunity to excel as the public embraces them as productive members of society. 
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer
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