By Tahani Sahra Hamdan
Health as a basic human right is a subject of political debate in the United States, even more so for Palestinians currently living under Israeli occupation. As a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology and Global Health student at the University of Texas, I recently traveled to the West Bank of Palestine to conduct a pilot study of women living with physical disabilities. Some of the results that I discovered were not only disheartening as a woman myself living with physical disabilities, but also as an attack upon humanity.
As a first-generation Palestinian-American, I have always wondered what life would be like to live in Palestine with my same disabilities. I would always ask myself the question, “If I were a woman living in Palestine with Multiple Sclerosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis, would I be able to receive the same care that I receive living in the U.S., or does my U.S. passport make my life worth more?”
Ask, and I shall receive. I travelled to Palestine in the midst of Israeli Operation Defensive Edge in Gaza, in which over 2137 Palestinians have been killed and several thousands more injured.
Sure, I was in the West Bank, I did not feel what was felt in the Gaza Strip, but assuredly what began as a pilot study on women with disabilities, turned out to be a nightmare. Between spending nearly every night suffocating from tear-gas shot from the Israeli Defense Forces, simply getting out of the house was difficult for me during my few short weeks there. Upon interviewing the Palestinian women living with physical disabilities, it was not difficult to understand that this is their lives each and every single day.
On days when I was able to leave the house without a tremendous fear for my life, I interviewed Palestinian women living with disabilities to get an understanding of their narrative of life under occupation.
Disabled Palestinian women explained the difficulty of receiving any type of specialized medical care. Not only the geographic barriers, but also the nine meters high Separation Wall (known by Israel as Security Barrier but known to Palestinians as Apartheid Wall) prevents nearly all travel by West Bank residents to and from Jerusalem and all areas under Israeli control.
Jerusalem is where they have to go for the best medical care, or what we in the United States would consider basic medical care. For people with disabilities, it is the only place where you can see a disability-related specialist. The women I talked to had very severe forms of arthritis and had received nothing more than pain medications. No physical therapy. No mobility-assisted devices. Few, if any, prescriptions at all. They said that they only took medication when they were in major pain, which was during winter. Prior to the Separation Wall, which began construction in 2002, sick and disabled residents of the West Bank were able to freely travel to Jerusalem and beyond to obtain specialized care.
Geographic barriers posed another great limitation. With hills, rocks, sand, and unpaved road, traveling for people with disabilities was very limited, leaving them no choice but to spend their time at home. The houses are very close together, most homes built on top of each other. Climbing down steep hills and alleyways is often required. The houses I visited almost always had steps at the entrance and inside. Homes resembled that of high-rise apartment buildings without elevators or wheelchair ramps. When they do go out, the disabled walk or, for longer distances, take a bus or taxi that comes to designated stops in their town.
The Palestinian society in general, including women with disabilities, is highly educated. The women I interviewed had completed their Bachelor’s degree but were working in jobs that accommodated their disabilities, such as secretarial positions. Other women dropped out of school at a young age because of physical limitations.
One of the most interesting aspects of the interviews was that disabled women said they were happy with their lives as they were. These women were not married, did not have any children, they enjoyed living at home with their parents, and they helped with house chores. When asked, “If you could change anything in your life, what would you change?” They replied, “Nothing should be changed.”
As a Public Health student, I began to question whether imposing my American values of a happy life should be like upon women that were already happy with their lives. Who am I to judge and change a woman’s perspective of “happiness?”
With the aim of improving the comfort of women living with disabilities in a developing country under decades of political unrest, I hope to one day return to Palestine with culturally-sensitive recommendations that will improve the lives of disabled Palestinian women without imposing my American values.