“I know it’s very dangerous,” she said. “Each time I get on an escalator with my wheelchair, I prepare myself for death. But I have no other choice. I have nobody to help me.”
In a new report, “‘I Am Equally Human’: Discrimination and Lack of Accessibility for People with Disabilities in Iran,” Human Rights Watch and the Center for Human Rights in Iran document the everyday barriers that people in Iran, like Fatemeh, face – while using public transportation, shopping for groceries, withdrawing money from the ATM, or trying to access fitting rooms.
Even government offices are typically inaccessible, despite the fact that people with disabilities must visit them for various services. Iran has few systems in place to assist people with disabilities, and they confront stigma and discrimination in interactions with doctors, bus drivers, and government social workers alike.
Fatemeh, 33, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy about 13 years ago. She lives alone now, though she needs help with daily tasks like dressing and bathing.
Iran’s State Welfare Organization, the main agency tasked with providing services to people with disabilities, does not offer personal assistance services to help people with disabilities. So Fatemeh pays a neighbor to help with her basic needs. If her neighbor is traveling or busy, she must find a friend or relative to help her. Because of her financial limitations, she makes these requests as infrequently as possible.
In addition to talking about the lack of accessibility, many people with disabilities shared accounts of disrespectful treatment or verbal abuse by social workers at the State Welfare Organization. Many of the social workers are overworked. Although national standards establish that each social worker should have no more than 150 cases, many have much heavier caseloads. Fatemeh said her social worker has so many cases to handle that she can hardly remember anyone from one visit to the next.
“Each time I have to tell my story again to convince her that I really need support,” Fatemeh said.
Fatemeh has a manual wheelchair. When her arms started becoming weaker because of her condition, she requested an electric wheelchair, but never got one. In fact, the government typically only provides one type of wheelchair – a “hospital wheelchair” – meant only to transfer patients within a hospital, not for daily navigation.
Since Fatemeh does not work, her only source of income is the modest “survivor pension” she receives because her father passed away a few years ago. In Iran, if a man passes away, his dependents, including unmarried daughters, can receive social security payments. However, by law, a person can only benefit from a single social security program, so Fatemeh cannot claim a disability pension. For now, relatives pay her rent, but she worries that someday they may not be able to.
Despite the barriers, Fatemeh is determined to do as much as she can without relying on others. She uses the public bus system, though buses generally are not accessible for people with disabilities. Few buses have adjustable steps to allow people who use wheelchairs, crutches, or walkers to board, and there are stairs leading to the platforms for the city’s Bus Rapid Transit buses.
“When I notice that people do not have the time or knowledge to open the ramp, I ask someone to lift me on and off the bus in my wheelchair,” Fatemeh said. “Sometimes I have to let five or six buses pass before I can get assistance to board the bus.”
But her resolve is unwavering. She will continue to ride Iran’s escalators and board its buses, and hopefully someday the State Welfare Organization and other responsible bodies will provide the services she and millions of people in Iran who have a disability need.