Staring can be a natural human response to anything that’s different. Around 2005, I hosted a group of six British tourists visiting İstanbul.
One of the men was physically handicapped and had to use a wheelchair. Getting around the city was not an easy task. Sidewalks were uneven and ramps at building entrances and toilet facilities for the handicapped were few.
The group’s general impressions of İstanbul were favorable. However, they thought Turkey was not very well equipped for disabled people in wheelchairs. They also noticed that many people stared at their friend in the wheelchair.
The other day, when I was at the Palladium shopping center, I came across a couple of disabled persons who were selling tickets at a stand. I learned that they represented a very interesting organization known as YEK (Yetenekli Engelsizler Komedi) Tiyatrosu, a theater troop of disabled actors. I was pleased to meet them as it is another example of how Turkey is changing. Gradually, people’s behavior towards disabled people is becoming more natural.
Each of our own views on disability varies. Some people feel shame or guilt if a loved one is disabled. You could feel pity or may feel natural around someone who is disabled. The latter individual is somebody who has good awareness of the disabled. In societies where teaching citizens to be comfortable with a peer who has disabilities is not common, the natural reaction is to feel pity and to stare. It generally means that people have not been taught to treat people with disabilities respectfully. I have found the best thing to do when you feel awkward in any situation with anyone is to try to find what you have in common with the person, rather than what is different.
Being disabled does not just include the physically handicapped. In order to qualify for disability benefits from social security in America, “individuals must have an impairment, either medical, psychological, or psychiatric in nature, that keeps them from being able to do substantial gainful activity.” This last term means substantial work; the definition is quite broad.
Until more recently in Turkey, it was rare to see a physically handicapped person in public, except for those who were begging. It was so rare that I can vividly remember a woman I used to see in a wheelchair every day when I was driving to work.
Around 2001, as I would drive to Kadıköy through Moda, I would see a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair dressed like she was going to an office or school to work. She was making her way down a hill in her wheelchair. I was often tempted to stop my car and get out and stop her and express my respect to her for her determination to live as normal of a life as one can who is disabled. But I never did! Since we have relocated the bookstore, I no longer take that way. I was inspired by how determined she was to overcome that which hinders her daily functions and from full and effective participation in society on an equal footing.
Joni Eareckson Tada, who is the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends, is an international advocate for people with disabilities. I remember as a teenager reading her autobiography, “Joni: An Unforgettable Story,” and being moved by her example. Joni had a diving accident in 1967 which left her, at the age of 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After two years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a fresh determination to help others in similar situations. In her book, she shares how during her rehabilitation she spent long months learning how to paint with a brush between her teeth. She is a well-known artist and international speaker.
Individuals who have special needs and/or are physically disabled have the right to feel accepted and respected. Though his or her path may not be easy, it does not mean it is the end of life or that there is no hope. Joni is a living example of this. The Turkish woman in the wheelchair is another. I believe the disabled actors who will perform in the play “Engellenemeyenler” (a two-curtain comedy) at YEK Tiyatrosu on July 28 are also living examples.
In the past decade or so, Turkey has been taking measures to better establish the rights of disabled adults and children. One way we can show our support is to learn more about YEK Tiyatrosu. Visit their website at www.yektiyatrosu.org.
Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]