The challenges facing Muslims with disabilities and impairments often arise simply from a lack of awareness on the part of others
magine being limited to how much time you can spend outdoors or interacting with others because you have a disability or impairment. Imagine being unable to obtain general education because the school or organisation you wish to attend does not have the resources or staff needed to teach individuals with disabilities. And imagine wanting to learn about your faith and going to the Mosque, only to be directed to pray in an isolated area or shoe room, not in congregation, because the facility does not provide accessibility for individuals with disabilities (and their medically prescribed footwear or equipment).
A place of worship is generally thought of as being a safe, kind, and welcoming place for everyone, including individuals with disabilities or impairments. Unfortunately, this is not always so. In fact, Muslims with disabilities, as well as their caregivers, tend to face real challenges when attempting to participate in regular congregational prayers and Islamic educational programmes, or even pay a visit to the Mosque. Their struggles range from simply gaining physical access to obtaining resources from other Islamic organisations and centres. Granted, the world is not perfect, and individuals with disabilities may face barriers at non-religious facilities too. But faith-based organisations typically connect religion with the general betterment of society, and so it is important to understand the concerns and challenges facing Muslims with disabilities within Muslim organisations.
Although Mosque patrons are friendly, they can inadvertently make Muslims with disabilities (and their caregivers) feel as though they don’t belong or cannot move without assistance. Some Mosques actively promote inclusion and expect Muslims with disabilities to engage in activities. But this is not always the case, and, combined with the lack of resources to create, support and sustain the inclusion of Muslims with disabilities, the challenges remain and should be addressed.
A shortage of special education teachers prevents many Muslims with disabilities from learning about Islam in traditional settings, but some do participate in activities and programmes offered to everyone at the Mosque. Unfortunately, many Islamic centres are not designed to be disability-friendly and they lack appropriate resources (such as visual aids for individuals who may be hearing-impaired). There is also a need to address the question of accommodating Muslims with disabilities in the Mosque: for example, permitting someone with special medical shoes and equipment to enter the Mosque.
The reality is that Islamic centres across South Africa can easily become overwhelmed with a plethora of community concerns, and they sometimes need to rely on information and training from third party organisations or advocates on issues such as the concerns of individuals with special needs.
In 2007, South Africa signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – and we need to uphold that obligation. Access is a human right and all places of worship must be accessible.
Zain Bulbulia led the South African government delegation team to the United Nations (UN), New York, for the ratification and signing of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability. He is currently the acting head for gender, youth and disability in the planning commission of the Premier of Gauteng. email: firstname.lastname@example.org