Failing the Disabled: Looking for Answers

This article was published in the November 2012 issue of JO Magazine.

For a moment, the issue of the treatment and status of people with disabilities came to the fore of Jordan’s collective consciousness. In May, the BBC aired an explosive story based on the work of an undercover reporter who used a hidden camera to document the abuse of children in eight of Jordan’s privately operated special care homes for children with disabilities. The video captured by Hanan Khandagji is horrific, showing children physically and mentally abused, neglected, and inhumanely restrained. The public outcry was apoplectic. Facebook and Twitter were inundated. HM King Abdullah II visited several of Jordan’s special care centers, issuing directives to government offices to hold negligent centers accountable and prosecute individual wrongdoers. Despite this, few concrete reforms on an institutional level have been made.

In 2007, Jordan signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention was coupled with passage of Law Number 31, developed in close cooperation with advocacy groups made up of people with disabilities and aimed at modernizing the legal approach to disability. Jordan would end its practice of providing handouts and short-term solutions, which were often more patronizing than helpful, and begin implementing inclusive practices to provide the tools for those with disabilities to be functional, productive members of mainstream society, with measures including wheelchair access to buildings and proper education. Law 31 also called for the creation of the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, which opened in 2008.

Four years later, Muhannad Al Azzeh is deeply concerned about the lack of progress. “We did not fulfill even half of our obligations according to the convention,” he says.

At the sleek, modern offices of the Jordan Civil Society Program, Al Azzeh makes his way around the facility by feel, slowly but deliberately. Though well funded through a USAID grant, there is no all-purpose worker to tend to guests. Al Azzeh doesn’t seem to mind, offering to prepare tea or coffee for visitors himself. Marked by the physiology of middle age—thinning hair and heavyset build—Al Azzeh is unassuming at first glance. When he speaks in slightly accented English, his words carefully chosen, it becomes clear he is not ordinary. And he cannot seem to open his eyes.

Dr. Muhannad Al Azzeh

If Al Azzeh had been young enough to ever be helped by the Higher Council, he would have been their poster boy. Al Azzeh was born with sight, but at a very young age it began to deteriorate. Doctors informed his father that he would be blind by the time he reached elementary school. Fearing his son would be marginalized in society, Al Azzeh’s father began pushing him at a young age to excel in academics. “I was told that if you want to be recognized, and if you want to have opportunities, you shouldn’t accept less than your PhD degree,” he says.

Al Azzeh earned a law degree from the University of Alexandria and a doctorate in the Netherlands with a focus on public policy, democratization, and good governance. Despite his exceptional education, Al Azzeh was unable to find university employment in Jordan. “My applications to work as a lecturer were always rejected because I was blind,” he says.

That spurred Al Azzeh to become involved in Jordan’s budding disability rights movement. Having already played a key role in developing Law Number 31 in 2007, Al Azzeh joined the Jordan Civil Society Program in 2010, providing his legislative and legal expertise to a special unit dedicated to disability rights. “I decided that my legal and public policy background could be utilized to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, including my own rights.”

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In a report issued last February, Al Azzeh and his organization documented in detail how the Jordanian government had failed to live up to its commitments, from basic protections from abuse and discrimination for the disabled to the failure to enforce building codes that require wheelchair accessibility. Patronizing the disabled is still the norm and even practices long abandoned in other countries, like forced hysterectomies for intellectually disabled women, are still conducted in Jordan.

The 200-page report, submitted to the government and the general public, faced immediate criticism from government officials. “Our report was aggressively rejected by the relevant ministries, including the Higher Council,” he says. “What we said exactly is that there is a clear, clear lack of coordination amongst the different governmental and national departments in the disability field. Behind the lack of coordination is an ambiguity in the identity and mandate for each ministry.”

Two months later, the BBC exposé aired. Al Azzeh wasn’t surprised by what it showed. “In the report we documented violations and the lack of monitoring of the special care centers. Some of these findings had been published in newspapers in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but nobody listened.”

Rakan Saida is the politics editor at Al Rai newspaper and one of nine members of a royal commission set up to examine the situation of the special care homes in Jordan. Saida is quick to contest the assertion, often circulated by government officials, that the abuse cases in Jordan’s special care homes are isolated and limited to a few abusers. “There are many reasons why the abuse documented by the BBC documentary was able to occur,” Saida says. “The most important is the lack of official guidance in monitoring the special care sector and the lack of coordination between the relevant government bodies. All of the government organizations are working independently and without standards, going in their own directions.”

At the center of the abuse scandal is the poor quality of staff. BBC footage reveals their basic apathy toward the welfare of children under their care. The sole focus of staff members appears to be the maintenance of order, achieved through severe, often physical punishment of children perceived to be disruptive.

Ghadir Al Haris, director of educational programs at the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, says the council is well aware of staff issues at centers but has little power to correct the situation—that is supposed to be done by the Ministry of Social Development. According to Al Haris, a major obstacle to hiring and retaining quality staff members is the inability or unwillingness of centers to pay competitive salaries. Particularly in rural areas, centers pay as little as JD 75 a month despite a minimum wage of JD 190 per month. “Unfortunately, many centers are facing big financial problems. Some have the money but are unwilling to pay [higher salaries],” says Al Haris.

Saida agrees low salaries are a problem. He would also like to see employees with appropriate qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree in psychology and adequate supplementary training. “Without qualified staff, effective monitoring, and coordination between relevant government entities, the children at these centers are not getting a real education.” The special care homes become, in effect, glorified daycare centers where, according to Saida, “They provide food, water, and a place to sleep, and that’s it.”

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By any objective standards, Hanan Khandagji has shaken the special care sector in Jordan. Her BBC report set in motion a reform process involving officials at the highest levels of government. The ramifications go far beyond the reassessment of the treatment of children with disabilities, but also involve intensive scrutiny of the homes for orphans, juveniles, and the homeless. With an immaculately wrapped headscarf, Khandagji is beautiful when she smiles, laughs easily, and shows her youthful idealism. What she has done is remarkable, especially considering that she is just twenty-three and still a university student.

The story begins when Khandagji was tipped off to potential abuse when Al Balad Radio, her employer, launched an investigative reporting unit and began receiving anonymous complaints about Amman’s special care homes. To see if there was any validity in the accusations of abuse, Khandagji posed as a volunteer and began working at several facilities. Initially she recorded audio, as the report was developed for a radio audience. When the BBC heard about her work at a journalism conference, they asked her to try to replicate it for an international television audience, this time with hidden cameras.

Hanan Khandadji

Once she had the footage of abuse, Khandagji contacted the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development for comment on the situation. Amal Nahhas, the secretary general of the Higher Council, vehemently denied the accusations. “Amal Nahhas said that ‘Everything is under control,’” Khandagji says. “She said that ‘There is no abuse and we are performing our role as required.’” The response was the same from Ministry of Social Development spokesman Fawaz Ratroot. “Some from the Higher Council said I was lying, that I was fabricating things, that there was no real evidence, that I was ruining the reputation of Jordan and the special care sector. Instead of dealing with me as a serious person with a serious investigation, I was brushed off,” Khandagji says.

When Nahhas’ office was contacted for this story, a request for an interview was declined.

When the BBC report aired, viewers around the world were aghast at the treatment, while Jordanians were furious that such abuse and neglect could be occurring here. The two main entities involved in disability issues in Jordan, the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development, could no longer maintain their denials.

While the Higher Council had successfully produced legislation and recommendations in a number of key areas, including special care homes, the council has no means to enforce its own policies, either with the special care homes or with government ministries. Lara Yassin, another official at the Higher Council, says, “We do not have any legal enforcement mechanism that says violators must deal with lawyer X or judge Y. When we get a complaint, we go through the channels that exist for us to address that complaint.” Those channels are limited to issuing reports on centers and sending the information on to the Ministry of Social Development.

Samir Ramadan, the Higher Council official who works directly with rural special care centers, described the difficulties getting the centers to abide by all of the regulations meticulously developed by the council. Without the means to enforce, Ramadan admitted, the council had to lower its standards. “While we understand our roles and responsibilities,” Ramadan says. “That is not always the case with the service providers operating the community rehabilitation centers. Sometimes we have had to loosen the requirements and make exceptions to the rules.”

The care centers have been just the most egregious of the problems. The lack of legal enforcement has meant that even though Jordan has clear regulations regarding disability access in newly constructed buildings, the rules aren’t applied. Money is not the obstacle; many, if not most, sidewalks in affluent neighborhoods are impassable for those in wheelchairs, while even high-budget building projects currently underway, some even part of government-funded programs, lack wheelchair access.

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While the investigative committee set up immediately after the BBC documentary scandal focused solely on care homes, a parallel and longer term committee was also formed to look at the more general issue of special care homes in Jordan, including those that serve other vulnerable groups.

Al Haris serves on this committee alongside Saida, and in her view the committee’s approach of stepping back to look at the wider picture has been critical. “Sometimes you have to think outside of the box,” Al Haris says. “Sometimes when you go out of the box and look at things comprehensively, you see things differently.” She says the committee is working to get the wide-ranging organizations, both in and out of the government, to work together better.

Saida makes the point more bluntly. “I don’t want coordination like ‘we sit and drink coffee together,’” he says. “If you want to change, change! This talk needs to be translated into real action.” For observers like Saida who are deeply invested in the reform process, what remains particularly frustrating is the lack of accountability at the highest levels of government.

Khandagji, who faced personal attacks from officials at the Higher Council and fierce denials from the Ministry of Social Development, agrees with Saida’s assessment. “There are no repercussions at the higher levels of these government bodies,” she says. “One day after the investigative committee assigned responsibility to the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development for the failures at the special care homes, Amal Nahhas, the secretary general of the Higher Council, had her contract renewed. How do you renew Amal Nahhas’ contract the day after the Higher Council was judged to be partially responsible for the abuse cases?”

Having stood resolutely at the center of the controversy since her investigation was first aired, Khandagji has no illusions that the solutions are easy or that rhetoric alone will solve the problem. “It is clear from the statements and actions of the royals that they wish to see serious reform of the special care sector,” says Khandagji. “The problem is that the people responsible for implementing change are not doing their jobs.”

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