Ola Abú Al Ghaib empowers women with disabilities and guarantees their full integration in society through access, equity, and full participation.
The New Idea
Ola is integrating women with disabilities into society by creating an enabling environment and empowering them socially and legally, so that they can access their rights and contribute to society as full citizens.
Ola established Stars of Hope Society (SHS) and pursues a two-pronged strategy: First, she advocates for the rights of disabled women, a new concept in Palestinian society, the Levantine region and most of the Arab World where disabled women are often kept hidden from society. Second, she provides direct individual services and training to empower disabled women to become active members in their communities. Ola arranges and mobilizes disabled women by providing them with necessary skills, such as negotiation, presentation, and communication skills, in addition to counseling, medical, and rehabilitation services. To create awareness and educate society, Ola developed a national advocacy campaign that highlights discrimination against disabled women and demonstrates their potential.
Palestine is a destabilized state, where violence takes place in many forms every day. The state has few resources, with the exception of foreign aid and little capacity to deliver services or enforce laws, such as the Palestinian law for individuals with special needs, issued in 1995—which has never been enforced.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics report on individuals with special needs, the unstable political situation in Palestine and lack of centralized political authority meant that only citizen organizations aided the disabled and those with special needs. Government medical and rehabilitation programs were insufficient or nonexistent for a long time, and most established indoor care centers that kept the disabled separated from their families and communities—creating a gap that reinforced negative perceptions of the disabled. According to the report, after the first Intifada in 1987, new organizations began to follow a more progressive philosophy, the most prominent being the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Khalil Abu Raya, where Ola worked and gained experience in rehabilitation and medical care for the disabled.
Statistics on people with disabilities are neither comprehensive nor accurate. According to the Palestinian National Information Center, at least 20,000 Palestinian women are disabled. Only 25.6 percent of disabled women are economically active in Palestine, usually in low-level and low-paid jobs. In addition, half of the disabled in Palestine are illiterate, with 66.2 percent being women.
Although 70 percent of the disabled in Palestine are disabled due to disease, 80 percent of services are directed at those disabled due to injuries related to violence and the Intifada. Like other Arab societies, discrimination against women is prevalent in Palestinian society despite the efforts to achieve women’s equality in the last couple of decades. Palestinian women with disabilities confront prejudices based on gender and disability, and are often regarded with stereotypes; described as childlike, dependent, incompetent, asexual, unable to take the role of worker or mother. Many families hide a disabled daughter; the implication is that she is an incomplete member of the family.
The lack of appropriate support services and adequate education result in low economic status, which in turn creates dependency on families and caregivers. Though it is the law, government public schools refuse to enroll disabled students. While medical centers and hospital officials distribute medications and accessibility equipment to disabled men, only what is left is provided to disabled women. Implemented programs for the disabled and most of the beneficiaries of the programs are men, though they are regarded as “gender neutral” and discrimination against women affects how beneficiaries are selected. There are few vocation-training programs and they are dedicated to disabled males, especially through the YMCA.
Society’s understanding of disabilities and what it means to be disabled is limited, and accessibility is absent in schools, court houses, markets, and even hospitals. Disabled women’s poor access to healthcare and rehabilitation is due to poverty, lack of awareness, and family apathy towards their condition and needs. Disabled women also suffer from domestic violence, rape, physical assault, and moral degradation. Consequently, they may lack the self-confidence to participate in public life and decision-making.
After six years of work with an organization that provided only physical rehabilitation services to men, Ola decided to fill the existing gaps and address the issues of women with disabilities. By mapping the existing national and international citizen organizations (COs) working on this issue regionally, she realized that women with disabilities were a low priority. Therefore, the social, cultural, and legal obstacles that hinder their full integration in society were not being addressed.
By providing disabled women with the tools they need to be empowered and active members within a community, Ola is changing the perception of disability and increasing access for disabled women on all levels. Ola established SHS, the first and only CO for and managed by disabled women in the Levant, but also the Arab World. SHS’s board is comprised of women with disabilities from across the occupied territories and the West Bank, ensuring that capable disabled women are recognized, and that SHS’s model will spread across the Palestinian territories. SHS serves as national representative for women with disabilities in Palestine and the Levant.
Ola’s model has a two-pronged strategy: First, she advocates for disabled women’s human and civil rights through national and regional advocacy and awareness campaigns. Second, she provides holistic services to Palestinian disabled women. She believes her new model must work at all levels to convince disabled women, their communities, and the country.
Ola aggressively lobbies the Ministry of Social Affairs—an umbrella organization for the disabled in Palestine—to ensure that facilities are accessible and to accelerate delays in registration procedures. She encourages them to enforce existing laws that entail specific rights for the disabled, such as a 5 percent quota among all employment opportunities. Ola also reaches out by telling her story and those of the women at SHS to the media, local television, and newspapers; highlighting the dignity, rights, and achievements of disabled women.
Within communities, Ola is training health professionals, schools, and companies about how to accommodate disabled women’s special needs while recognizing their rights and abilities. Ola has also developed a training program for community based rehabilitation workers to improve their awareness and ability to address the needs of disabled women. She conducts workshops, lectures, and seminars for the families of disabled women and local community members, emphasizing how disability affects everyone and how we all have a stake in improving their quality of life. She is also creating family support groups and other structures to facilitate the dialogue. Networking on the local level, Ola is approaching women’s organizations to help them integrate specific programs for disabled women, by utilizing their existing infrastructure and outreach capacity to achieve new levels of service.
Ola’s other strategic emphasis is direct service delivery. She has designed a comprehensive package of services tailored to the type of disability, need, and interest. SHS has begun to include psychological consultation, capacity-building, skills enhancement, and self-advocacy training, teaching women to advocate on their own behalf. By working at the grassroots level, she generates information and skills to secure the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in mainstream society. In addition, she has developed inclusive outreach strategies to reduce the social isolation experienced in marginalized women’s communities.
To ensure appropriate planning and dissemination of services, Ola established her own database, as there is no reliable, centralized information about women in Palestine. She collected the available statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, local COs, and the Disabled Union to develop a questionnaire to be answered by women with disabilities, and highlight their primary needs. She interviewed women with disabilities from various regions of Palestine and focused on the gaps in existing services. Her fieldwork and interaction with the women and their families helped her to develop a “priority list” of women in need, based on their medical and economic conditions. A lack of financial resources for this project was challenging, and required Ola to carry out extensive fundraising efforts.
Ola introduces her idea and SHS’s mission by participating in international conferences and events—usually traveling at her own expense. In 2006, she represented Palestine at an international conference in Dubai and attended the Arab Women and Disability Conference sponsored by the Arab League in Cairo. Ola utilizes these events to network, fundraise, exchange expertise, and learn about the latest services being provided to disabled women. In 2006, Ola participated in an international training program on Leadership Skills for Disabled Women in Sweden. She has begun partnerships with international networks in Germany and Sweden—an opportunity for further cooperation and support.
To grow locally, Ola will use her board members, living in different Palestinian cities, to implement and spread her work. Each member will be responsible for providing services to disabled women and with the necessary training and skill, will advocate on their behalf in the community. They will each establish a network of disabled women and link them with SHS. In a few years, SHS will meet the needs of at least a quarter of the 20,000 disabled women in Palestine, providing services, better access to facilities, and an improved quality of life.
Regionally, Ola will open the membership of SHS to disabled women in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, since there is no similar organization. To reach them, she will rely on her vast network of regional and international connections. Ola will orient and train them to spread her approach in their countries. Regional members will also establish networks of disabled women in their local communities; creating seeds for the first Arab network of women with disabilities.
Ola was born in Nablus, a major city in Palestine. She was twelve when she had to deal with a dramatic health crisis and accept a permanent disability. After becoming disabled, Ola was forced to stay home for three years, and received no schooling. She felt marginalized and worthless, but decided to go back to school despite her disability. Unfortunately, Ola could not find a school nearby to accept her. Determined, Ola left her family and moved to Bethlehem to live with an English woman and enrolled in a private school. Though young, Ola convinced her traditional Arab family to let her leave home to receive an education—though it was not easy.
Initially, the school enrolled Ola as a listener only, but after she earned the highest marks in her class, Ola was accepted as a “regular” student. However, the tuition fees were too much for her family to pay, and jeopardized her dream to complete her education. Ola fought for her rights, approached the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs and asked for a scholarship. She also needed to cover the costs of living away from home, and searched for external funding sources. Working with disabled students during her school years, Ola became acquainted with a German organization for the disabled and they were eager to grant her a full scholarship—recognizing her brilliance and active role within the disabled students’ community in Palestine. During high school, Ola worked with the physiotherapy department at Bethlehem University to include disabled characters in a few well-known children’s stories. Though challenging years, Ola became independent, adapted to her physical limitations, and changed the understanding among people in her close circle about the abilities of disabled women.
During university, Ola again faced the challenge of inaccessibility on campus. She advocated for her right to an accessible campus and her advocacy efforts earned her a position on the campus construction committee. The administration assigned Ola to work with their engineers to adapt the university campus to meet the needs of the disabled. Ola obtained her Master’s degree from Bir Zeit University at Ramallah in Project Management in 2003.
Ola went on to work at one of the best rehabilitation centers in Palestine, responsible for the department of development and public relations. She has more than nine years of experience in preparing and managing projects related to medical and rehabilitation services for the disabled.
While at the rehab center, Ola realized that to perform her job and personal responsibilities, she needed a car. She wrote a personal assistance proposal to her network of associates and was granted a car tailored for the disabled by an international organization. Finding no one to teach her how to drive, Ola went to Israel to receive driving lessons designed for the disabled. Her subsequent request for a Palestinian driver’s license was simply too much for the responsible official to comprehend. He insisted she be examined by a panel of doctors whose first question to her was “Can you walk?” Ola refused to give up and knocked on doors until she managed to meet with the former Palestinian President who gave orders to issue her a license. Ola again achieved her goal.
Ola is married and the mother of a four-year-old. Ola and an occupational therapist colleague fell in love, which instead of being celebrated was rejected by their families. Her family thought that this was too much for her to handle and predicted that she would be divorced in a couple of years. His family could not understand why their perfectly healthy son would marry a physically disabled woman who could not care for a home. Though her wedding was attended by friends and less supportive onlookers, nine years later, she and her husband are happily married.
Her pregnancy and delivery were also struggles. The doctors were shocked by her desire to have a baby. They saw her as a woman who could not take care of herself and assumed she would not be able to take care of a baby. Due to lack of adequate care, her first pregnancy resulted in a premature baby who died three days after delivery. Determined to have a child, when Ola became pregnant again, she went to Israel to have better antenatal care, and gave birth to Mahdi, a healthy baby boy.
That Ola is disabled and has had to fight for her basic rights to health, education, employment, and marriage, made her realize the importance of changing society’s attitudes and the government’s approach to dealing with disabled women. Her professional experience in the field of rehabilitation and care for the disabled, and her interactions with international agencies and policymakers influenced her thinking and informed her strategies to make disabled women more visible and empowered. Ola has always had to fight for what she accomplished. Being a physically challenged woman, she has struggled to be treated as an equal citizen, and has dedicated her life to securing the rights and making life easier and more fulfilling for disabled women in Palestine and across the Arab World.