I graduated from college in finance and economics a few years back. I took courses in finance, economics, management, and accounting. I sent out my resume to various companies. Like many Lebanese in this difficult economy, with youth unemployment at 37%, I struggled to obtain a job. After numerous rejections, which I absorbed with patience, I shook off the disappointment, and armed with our renowned Lebanese optimism, kept trying. Finally, perseverance paid off, and after many more interviews, I landed my dream job, with a prestigious multi-national organization — one of the Big 4 accounting firms.
The job was challenging and fulfilling, but a few weeks later, I was admitted to the hospital because I had suppressed my physiological need to go to the bathroom for the whole day, which caused a severe kidney infection. You may ask yourself why I did that, but, you see, I’m physically challenged, and due to the workspace not being accessible, it would require me to go through the embarrassment of asking my coworkers to help me up and down the stairs to the bathroom, and assist me inside, while I interrupted their work several times a day.
It didn’t start with this company. I was born this way. The statistics were stacked against me, but for whatever reason, here I am, and I love life, and I have a tiny spot in this vast universe.
Life was a struggle from day one, as I was in and out of operating rooms since I was literally one day old, undergoing over twenty surgeries as of this writing, not including minor procedures.
At school, I had to be helped up and down two flights of stairs to get to class. I missed many cool field trips because destinations were inaccessible.
When friends of mine stand at the top of the Saint Nicholas stairs in Achrafieh, they gaze down and see quaint, old, romantic stairs, that they descend and admire the cute cafes on each side. I also see that beauty, but also a nightmare that I cannot surpass, that I cannot easily enjoy, without significant assistance and inconvenience for my friends or relatives.
In college, I thought it would get easier, but I was wrong. I had to be shuttled from one building to the next, with no attempt by the administration to accommodate people like me, with suitable alternatives. But I graduated, nonetheless. Since then, I have not been able to find work in any company with an accessible workplace. I have been invited to many job interviews, and even though my qualifications were more than sufficient for the job, the workplaces were not properly prepared to host people like me, with ramps, accessible toilets, and other basics that fellow citizens take for granted.
Banks and multinational corporations, which pride themselves on their Corporate Social Responsibility policy, have continuously disregarded the needs of the physically challenged, be it employees or clients. Even government buildings, such as the Sérail, do not have accessibility ramps at the entrance.
When I went for my driving license, I had to climb a flight of stairs in an old building to take my exam, but I could not do the practical test because they did not have a car with hand controls.
When I give my car to the valet, invariably, I have to ask them for assistance to get to my destination. In the few parking garages, with spots reserved for us, they are usually occupied with cars driven by people who think we don’t exist or maybe don’t care.
Advocacy groups have come a long way in voicing the concerns of disabled individuals but we still have a long way to go.
Recently, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia organized a seminar in Beirut focused on the inclusion of the disabled in the workplace. The speakers admitted that not enough was being done to improve the conditions needed to accommodate challenged individuals and promised to do more, but, unfortunately, nothing practical has materialized since.
Back in 2000, the Lebanese Parliament adopted Law 220, which safeguards the rights of disabled persons in the workplace, including a 3% mandatory hiring quota; however, it went largely unenforced.
Minister Gibran Basil hired a consultant with special needs, which gave us a lot of hope, and we’re looking forward to some positive change in the future.
Many agencies provided us with assistance, and we’re highly appreciative, but what we’re really looking for is not handouts. We want to be productive members of society and contribute in our own right, through our work, our ideas, our brains, and our creativity. All we need is a small push, by employers voluntarily complying with existing laws, to help us unleash our huge potential and become full citizens of this beautiful country.
Given the economic conditions in the country, I can understand how this is not an urgent matter for the government. Tens of thousands of people were physically handicapped during the war, and others, like me, know nothing else. They call the war survivors living martyrs — but we’re not martyrs, and damn it — we’re very much alive.
Joseph Hchaime is a financial consultant, author, and motivational blogger. He is also an activist for social inclusion and equality.
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