By IDA

 - June 30, 2020

This is one story as part of the Voices of People with Disabilities during COVID19 Outbreak series

Names may have been changed to protect the individuals mentioned in the story.

عربي هنا

Mahala is a single 35 year old deaf woman in a hearing family. She lives with her family in the city center of Baghdad, capital of Iraq. Mahala comes from a poor family where job opportunities are scarce. Over the past three decades, the country has been ravaged by war and U.N. sanctions, by sectarian conflict and the rise of Islamic State[1].

A suspected case was reported in Iraq on the 22 February, which was later confirmed to be positive according to a local medical centre, but this was denied by the Iraqi Ministry of Health[2]. On the next day, the 24 February, they reported the first official case. 

In Iraq, persons with disabilities are not included in public decision making. Regarding COVID-19, there is no specific recommendations and information is general and non-inclusive. “They don’t pay attention to us. We are invisible”, says Mahala.

Around three weeks ago, her whole family contracted COVID-19, including herself. They suspect their father got infected when working as a taxi driver, as he was in contact with many passengers and did not use face masks nor gloves because they were unavailable.

Sadly, Mahala’s father passed away because of COVID-19 and a lung disease he previously had. At that time, she was with him in the same hospital. However, due to COVID-19, her family could not say good bye and they were unable to hold a funeral. His body was placed in an unknown grave and no family members were allowed to be present in the process. Mahala’s family still don’t know where he is or if they will ever know. “I was very close to my father. We used to do everything together. I feel very lonely and lost in this world”, she says. Loosing Mahala’s father has caused a great psychological impact for her family, specially under such restrictions.

Lack of accessibility in medical centers

Mahala explains that accessible services and medical assistance for persons with disabilities is almost inexistent. There is no protocol on how to communicate nor how to deal with disabled people in health centers. “As a deaf person, I really struggled. There is no interpreter in health centers. I couldn’t communicate with staff at the hospital, and they didn’t understand me" said Mahala.

Moreover, health centers are not physically accessible and difficult to reach. Many people cannot reach them due to lack of accessible transport, or means to cover transport expenses. Tele medicine is not always useful as workers are not trained or disability aware. There is no specific information for persons with disabilities nor it is accessible.

Persons with disabilities face increased obstacles during COVID-19. For example, a hospital specialized in spinal injuries and rehabilitation has now been transformed into a hospital only for COVID-19 patients. This means many people with physical disabilities cannot receive specific treatment and their needs are not being met.

As gloves, masks and sanitisers were not available, DPOs took the initiative of distributing them, together with different international agencies but it’s not enough. “There are not enough resources to cover everyone’s needs”, she says. 

Barriers in securing food

Mahala was in the hospital for some days and after her father passed away, they were asked to go home and quarantine themselves. “We feel completely isolated. The only attention we get is from Iraqi DPOs over the phone”, she says. They have struggled to obtain food as they were unable to leave the house. “Luckily, a family member leaves food on our door stop but it’s really not enough to feed us all”, she says. They often rely on the local church (as they are a Christian family) or local DPOs to provide them with food.

Also, neighbors are afraid of her whole family, which has made them feel rejected. Religious beliefs and a deep suspicion of the government have made people ashamed of having COVID-19 and afraid of getting tested. There is a strong stigma attached to illness and quarantine in Iraq and some other Middle Eastern countries.[3] Mahala wonders what it will be like when they no longer have COVID-19 and if they will be accepted by the community.

Barriers in securing an income

Mahala’s father supported the whole family and this means securing an income was not a challenge. “There is not enough financial support for disabled people. We don’t receive any help from the state”, she says. “I am poor and disabled. I face double discrimination”, she says.

Barriers in accessing information

Official government information is not available in accessible formats. Moreover, there are no sign language interpreters in TV channels or media except one. Also, the interpreter only appears once per week, on Tuesdays. “This is not good enough”, she says. For this reason, DPOs have produced short videos on COVID-19 including sign language to raise awareness within the deaf community on how to avoid contagion and protect themselves.

Deaf persons have limited access to education. “Most of us cannot read or write”, she says. For Iraqi deaf persons, the level of education they are provided with is very low and there aren’t enough education opportunities. Like many deaf persons, Mahala could only reach primary school as deaf persons are not allowed in secondary school.

In Iraq, there is no official institution or school to graduate from as an interpreter. “We depend on ourselves, self-education and DPOs to learn sign language”, she says. On the government’s side, there is an absence of interpreters and many are recruited through informal processes, meaning they aren’t official and accredited sign language interpreters.

Increased violence against women with disabilities

Mahala says that unfortunately, violence against women with disabilities is not uncommon, however, it has increased during COVID-19. “Sexual abuse is more recurrent but the media only focuses on COVID-19”, she says. Mahala shares the story of a deaf woman with a physical disability who was raped by her neighbor and it hasn’t been investigated.  

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