Attitudes to Disability: Islam, the West and the Middle East

Prophetic Attitude to Disability

Not a great deal of information can be found in the life of the Prophet Muhammed or in the Qur’an regarding the issue of disability. But like many other issues within the Islamic tradition, a lot can be drawn from a single prophetic example. With this I have in mind the incident where a blind man asked if he could be exempt from the general obligation of attending congregational prayer at the mosque, and pray at home instead due to his disability. Now, given the endless examples of the Prophet’s leniency, gentleness, and patience with all members of his community – especially towards the old, sick, and the needy, one would reasonably expect that the Prophet would have permitted the exemption. However, the tradition goes on to tell us that the Prophet turned down the blind man’s request and encouraged him to attend like everyone else. To some, this may seem a little harsh, but a little insight into social disability theory offers an alternative understanding.

According to sociologist Victor Finkelstein (1980), western attitudes to disability have shifted through three major phases over time. The first phase is said to have existed prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, where those with disabilities were neither segregated from society nor viewed as socially incapable. Instead, they were part of a lower social class along with paupers and the mentally ill who took on the ‘profession’ of begging. Finkelstein claims that negative attitudes towards such people with disabilities were not exclusive to them. Rather, they were seen to be as much to blame for not working as able-bodied poor people due to their own sins, laziness, or the sins of their parents. It was only when society began to distinguish between the able-bodied poor on the one hand, and individuals with disabilities on the other that attitudes between them became distinct. This marks the beginning of phase two – the institutional phase. With the growth of medical institutions and asylums in the 19th century, more and more emphasis was put on ‘caring’ for people with disabilities. What followed was a long and continuous process of physically segregating such people into asylums and special care, removing them from general social engagement and hiding them from the eyes of the public. A new passive identity of ‘otherness’ was thus being constructed for them, largely characterised by weakness and dependence. This paved the way for what disability theorist Mike Oliver has called the ‘personal tragedy theory of disability’ (Oliver 1990). The rise and emphasis of hospital environments facilitated the rapid increase in the number of nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, counsellors, asylums, and charitable homes which, despite their apparent noble intent, only ensured the success of further segregating people with disabilities from society, and contributed heavily to their stigmatisation as alienated ‘objects of research and help’.

This was followed by phase three and the advent of the revolutionary ‘social model’ of disability in the mid-late 20th century, which was an approach that sought to both improve the way in which we perceive people with disabilities and to reintegrate them back into society. The new model, as an alternative to the previously prominent ‘medical model’ of disability, sees the disabling factor no longer in the individual person, but in the environment’s inability to accommodate them. What needed addressing were structural and technological issues which led to grand investments into the installation of ramps, lifts, automatic doors, better lighting in buildings, wider corridors, beeping signals at pedestrian crossings, audio announcements on public transport, computer aiding technology, and so on across the entire nation. This endeavour, which continues today, aims to reduce the phenomenon of disability as much as possible.

The negative effects of phase two – the institutional phase, however, are still with us. Studies continue to show that disability still exists as a form of social oppression and social exclusion (Oliver & Barnes 1998, Beart et al. 2005). Prejudiced assumptions remain deeply ingrained both in our common perceptions towards people with disabilities, as well as in our media portrayals of them, which are incredibly unflattering (Barnes 1992, Duncan 2002). And all this has been shown to contribute to their continuing lack of self-esteem and psychological distress (Abraham et al. 2002, Paterson 2007). Despite the positive goals of the social model, then, stigmatisation towards people with disabilities as incapable victims of tragedy has been stubbornly rigid in our minds since their construction in the institutional phase.

Coming back to the story about the Prophet, then; by encouraging the blind man to attend the daily congregational prayers – a rich and frequent activity of social cohesion – the Prophet sought to maintain integration amongst all members of the community. To be physically present and integrated denies the possibility of constructed alienation and otherness. Integration also reduces the scope of stigmatisation, insofar as the gap between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ social identity is kept to a minimum (Goffman 1969). Furthermore, the Prophet was known to give prominent roles and tasks to people with disabilities in order to further consolidate their involvement in society. Ultimately, the Prophet as ruler and statesman appeared to guide his community in a way which would by-pass the institutional phase of disability outlined by Finkelstein.

There are, of course, many other influences to be considered here, such as the phenomenon of ‘labelling’ in western medical institutions, as well as western society’s emphasis on and glorification of the ‘ideal’ body, which have also fuelled the stigmatisation of people with disabilities in our society – both of which are strongly countered in the Islamic tradition. What is being highlighted here, however, is that the primary solution for negative attitudes towards disability, should have been, and should always be, integration.

Attitudes in the Middle-East

So to what extent do Middle-Eastern Muslim countries follow the integrative attitude of the Prophet with regards to disability? Not very much at all, according to one visually impaired individual who grew up in Bahrain but has lived in the UK for the last 10 years. Yahye, a recent Masters graduate from the University of Westminster and freelance worker for disability integration social enterprise ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ tells me that despite the stigmatisation towards people with disabilities in the west, the implementation of the social model of disability in the UK is ‘head and shoulders’ above other countries in integrating people with disabilities back into society. It would seem that for the large part, the Middle-East is stuck in the institutional phase in which much money is spent on facilities for people with disabilities, but these usually take the form of exclusive ‘care institutes’ hidden from the eyes of the general public. Opportunities for people with disabilities are also incredibly narrow in the Middle East, resulting in degree graduates – of any subject – being destined to work in call centres, if they are fortunate enough to be employed for work at all. This has led many potential students with disabilities to not bother with university in the first place.

The ‘shame’ attached to families with disabled children is also more striking than it is in the west due to the comparative lack of social emphasis on disability equality and discrimination rights. People with disabilities often feel discouraged to even leave their homes due to such judgmental attitudes in society, as well as the lack of available practical assistance to travel. The sight of a disabled person walking or travelling alone is generally interpreted as such an individual being neglected by his or her family. For this reason, they are usually always accompanied by a family member or carer. The emphasis on hospitality and helpfulness typical to Muslim countries doesn’t help the situation either. Such well-meaning traits often only fuel patronising attitudes, unwanted assistance, and deny a disabled person’s independence. In fact, Yahye tells me that he feels much more dignified in the UK where they seem to have accomplished the right balance of allowing a person with disabilities to live and function independently, while at the same time, offering useful individual assistance only when required.

It should come as no surprise that yet another social failure in Muslim lands correlates with the departure from the Prophet’s example on the respective issue. So while the west continues to improve its policies to eliminate disability inequality and increase integration after its previous mistakes, the Middle-East still funds and builds institutes of exclusive care – exacerbating social stigma, and remain largely estranged to the social model of disability. They clearly have a very long way to go.

Abraham, C., Gregory, N., Wolf, L. & Pemberton, R. (2002). Self-esteem, stigma and community participation amongst people with learning difficulties living in the community, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 12, 430-443
Barnes, C. (1992) Disabling imagery and the Media, an Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, Halifax: Ryburn Publishing
Beart, S., Hardy, G. & Buchan, L. (2005). How people with intellectual disabilities view their social identity: A review of the literature. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 18, 47-56
Duncan, B. (2002) Portrayal of Disability in Recent Films: Notes, Disability World: 09 June 2002
Finkelstein, V. (1980) Attitudes and Disabled People, New York: World Rehabilitation Fund
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Oliver, M. & Barnes, C. (1998) Disabled People and Social Policy: From Exclusion to Inclusion, London: Longman
Paterson, L. (2007) Stigma, social comparison and psychological distress in adults with a learning disability, The University of Edinburgh, Doctorate Thesis