'One Billion Strong'.There are many images guaranteed to bring a smile to the lips--the laughter of children will do it for some people, kittens in a basket for others, while few can resist a spectacularly colourful sunset--what almost universally will not, is the sight of any kind of disability. Despite the fact that disability in all its cruel forms has been with us from our earliest days on the planet, most of us shy away from it.
There may be all kinds of reasons for this, one of the main ones perhaps that however sharp minded and physically able we are today, none of us knows what tomorrow will bring, for ourselves or those we love.
Disability does not respect wealth or position, its victims are random; it can affect any one of us at any time, but still society at all levels fails to make adequate provision for those who are directly affected and those around them.
The fifth International Shafallah Forum held in Doha, under the patronage of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missnad, had some stark truths to reveal on the subject.
The Shafallah Centre for Children with Special Needs, which, since it opened its doors in 1998 has championed the cause of disabled people everywhere, took as its theme this year 'Crisis, Conflict and Disability: Ensuring Equality', and in a period of history that has witnessed no shortage of conflicts and natural disasters, the lessons were salutary ones.
Disability--be it intellectual or physical--is never good news but, for many millions, it serves to exacerbate already difficult and often lonely lives. Take, for example, the recent natural disasters in Haiti, Pakistan, Japan and the United States, which left many hundreds of people disabled and alone. "During conflicts and disasters disabled people are the last to get attention," said Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in her keynote speech to the Forum's international audience. "We have a clear obligation to overcome this. More than the legal obligation, we have a human responsibility."
During the course of the three-day event, which brought together the First Ladies of several countries, noted dignitaries, policy makers, educators, people with disabilities, humanitarian organisations and leaders in the field, it was revealed that of the one billion people in the world living with a disability, some 800 million are living in poverty, and approximately 3.5 million of these are refugees or displaced persons.
The Shafallah Centre was established at the instruction of Sheikha Mozah and it is clear that Her Royal Highness continues to play an important part in its running. She was a frequent visitor at the three day conference in Doha, which was held at the Centre's premises, popping in and out of debates, small meetings and lunches, to speak with delegates about their personal experience and their opinions. It is clear Sheikha Mozah is entirely at home with the staff and children of the Centre; whilst listening intently to one of the tutors explain a particular training method, she absent mindedly stroked the head of a young boy sat at a manually operated Braille typewriter. All of the children were keen to capture her attention and engage with her, not one suspects, as a member of Qatar's royal family but as a valued and interested friend.
At a special meeting of Sheikha Mozah and the First Ladies, at which I was present, she was particularly concerned that the Shafallah conference should not be a mere "talking shop". It was, she observed, important to use the opportunity of being together to formulate plans and new methods of moving forward to improve the lives of those living with disability and also, in the cases of conflicts and natural disasters, to try to be more prepared for the fallout and she was keen to get the feedback of the group around her.
Her words were particularly resonant following the experiences related by a number of delegates from Japan and Haiti, all of whom were confident that lives could have been saved if there had been adequate preparations put in place, to be implemented at the first signs of the earthquakes which decimated both countries in 2011 and 2010 respectively.
The three-day event was taken as an opportunity by the Shafallah Centre's dedicated chairman Hassan Ali bin Ali to introduce delegates to 'One Billion Strong', a global initiative dedicated to disability awareness, rights and education. In response to Sheikha Mozah's request to do more to support real change in the lives of people with disabilities, the 'One Billion Strong Initiative' was formed in Geneva and registered as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
Chairman Hassan Ali bin All called upon all the Forum's attendees to sign the Shafallah Declaration on Crisis, Conflict and Disability; by doing this, he noted: "We will be encouraging adoption by the global community ... to establish a framework through which to begin addressing the rights and conditions of people with disabilities."
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference to The Middle East, Vice President of International Relief and Development (IRD) Alonzo Fulgham, who was involved in several lively debates on the role of international aid agencies in the area of crisis management, explained how essential it is for such organisations--both local and international--to be prepared for the disasters that, these days, never seem to be out of the headlines for long. IRD operates programmes across the globe including Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank in the Middle East region. Switching effortlessly between the macro and the micro aspects of the issue, Fulgham also stressed the importance of being able to look beyond the disability and see the person within. "It is essential," he observed, "that we do not judge any book by its cover, we must see beyond and look to what is inside".
The Shafallah Centre
The Shafallah Centre for children with special needs was established on the initiative of Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in 1998 with a limited number of children.
Since then, an ambitious plan of development has seen it greatly increase the number of children, the size of the Centre and the range of services it offers.
The new Shafallah Centre has been designed and constructed in accordance with the highest standards and latest developments in the field of children with special needs. Areas of expertise include: special education, rehabilitation, cognitive assessment, social work, child and adolescent psychiatry, paediatrics, behavioural analysis, counselling, music therapy, physical therapy and speech and language pathology.
The Centre works with the child and with the family to provide a comprehensive range of services and facilities, and provides community awareness of the issues involved and related to disability, such as matters of planning and special training.
Pat Lancaster in Doha