It can be difficult enough to find a disabled person who has managed to overcome his or her disability and truly succeed in life – let alone a disabled woman in Yemeni society. Jamala Al-Baidhani lives with her mother and five brothers and sisters; her father died when she was still in preparatory school. Her difficulties began when she was only seven years old, when she was left paralyzed and was forced to use a wheelchair to move around.
Jamala was the first child in her family, and her mother and father were very happy to learn they would soon be parents. She became the source of happiness in her family’s home and was very active, remembered now to have always been running about and playing. However, when she contracted a bad case of meningitis, her life rapidly transformed. Smiles and innocent laughter disappeared from the home when her parents understood that their daughter was a victim of paralysis.
Attending school presented a difficult challenge for Jamala. At school, she saw and felt the difference between her and the other students: as they played, she was left alone in her wheelchair. “I really remembered the days when I was able to run everywhere, and I missed them,” she said.
But somehow, looks of pity on the faces of others only encouraged strength in Jamala. At the age of thirteen, she made the decision to join an association for disabled people and worked to help other disabled girls escape from the four walls that so often trap them indoors.
She carried out a field study on disabled Yemeni girls, with funding from a British organization. A year later, Jamala addressed an audience from a stage, putting her among the first handicapped girls in the Arab world to do so. Her message to the audience? “The handicapped can do better.”
Days full of challenges nonetheless passed quickly, and Jamala soon finished high school and went on to study sociology at university. Jamala found work at the Ministry of Social Affairs but after a time decided her presence there didn’t bring her any closer to her goal of providing services for other disabled women.
Through hard work and perseverance, Jamala became the National Coordinator for Disabled People. She did her best to assist the handicapped and worked in a variety of fields to accomplish her aims. She is now the chairwoman of the Challenge Association for Disabled Women.
In the past, Jamala was given the opportunity to travel to Germany, receive treatment, and possibly be cured – doctors went so far as to state that expected rate of success for the operation she would have received was 90%. Jamala’s response was surprising to those around her: “I preferred to remain disabled, to prove the disabled can achieve more than others, to show that while their bodies may be weak, their minds can be strong.”
Social Affairs Minister Dr. Amtalrazzaq Homad said the number of disabled people in Yemen is over two million.
A study by Ibrahim Omran stated that most forms of disability came as the result of wars and armed conflicts in Yemen over the past four decades, starting with the revolutionary war between Republicans and Royalists from 1962 until 1970, wars between north and south Yemen in the sixties and seventies, the war of secession that took place in the summer of 1994, and more recently, in conflicts surrounding the 2011-2012 youth revolution.
Naji Nasser Al-Shamiri, 65, is one such disabled war veteran. He fought in three wars civil wars and in the war against British colonialism. After participating in the September 26 Revolution, Al-Shamiri joined the National Guard and participated in the war against the royalists, in which he was arrested and tortured. In 1964, he fought against British colonialism. Al-Shamiri said it was a dangerous adventure but that the state let the militants and wounded down. “The state rewarded me with retirement – not only myself, but many soldiers,” he added.
Medical sources said the most common types of war disabilities include the loss of hands and legs, blindness, and hemiplegia.
In addition, there are many disabled veterans of wars in Abyan, Sa’ada, and in many other places as a result of Yemen’s youth revolution.
Hana’a Al-Aloi, an information officer for the youth resistance movement, said that six wars left more than 1000 people in Sa’ada disabled, and that most of them are children. “There isn’t any support, neither from the state nor from the Disability Fund. They are really suffering and the medical care is not very good,” she added.
Traffic accidents cause a large share of disabilities, especially among young people. High speeds and the absence of traffic rules and regulations have both led to a consistently high number of Yemenis becoming disabled.
Bader Al-Shuja, a student at Sana’a University’s Computer Faculty, is disabled as a result of a traffic accident. He was traveling to Ibb during Eid when the accident occurred, which left his spinal cord fractured.
“I was so sad when I learned that I wouldn’t be able to walk again… but then I decided to overcome the entire obstacle and achieve all my ambitious. I will continue studying and will be something in the future,” Bader said.
Bader joined the pro-democracy youth protesters at Change Square in the beginning of the revolution. His and his friends have demanded that disabled people receive care and be provided with educational and medical facilities. “We haven’t been able to receive our rights, and the Disability Fund doesn’t give us anything,” he said.
Bader accused the chairman of the Disability Fund of stealing and benefiting from money which is supposed to go towards the care of disabled people. He also called upon Dr. Amtalrazzaq Homad, the Social Affairs Minister, to fight such corruption and replace the Disability Fund chairman.
The alarming rate of disabilities in Yemeni society – equal to 10% of the country’s population –demands that every concerned member of the society pay attention to the problem, and find ways to participate in Yemen’s reaching a lower percentage in the future.
Bader said help should come from all directions, that because it’s fate which made them disabled, society should help rather than look down on disabled individuals.
Safa’a, whose father is disabled, said “The bright smile in the eyes and on the lips of a disabled child, the blind Sheikh or the disabled solider, evoke the full, beautiful meaning of compassion and affection… let’s work to make them happy.”