The Daily Struggle of Ammanis with Disabilities

Published December 15th, 2020 - 12:45 GMT
Amman is an unwelcoming city to people with disabilities.  ARIJ tackled this issue 10 years ago, but little has been done.
Photo by ARIJ
Amman is an unwelcoming city to people with disabilities. ARIJ tackled this issue 10 years ago, but little has been done.

By Sawsan Tabazah and Frank Andrews

If you are one of Amman’s 4 million residents, you already know how tricky it can be to move around the city without a car or public transport. But for the nearly 365,000 people with disabilities in the Jordanian capital, even the shortest trips can be a considerable — even dangerous — challenge. 

Abdal Rahman Salameh, 37, has used a wheelchair to get around Amman for 20 years. Visiting the University of Jordan, in the north of the city, to meet friends, he is unable to safely cross the street in front of the main campus gate, home to cafes, restaurants, bus stops and taxi stands. 

“I have to either get a taxi, which is usually very difficult to find, make [an approximately 1km] U-turn with my wheelchair [to a crossing], or use the underpass [which only has stairs] to cross the street,” Salameh says, noting that the last option is usually the only feasible one. 

Later, after our interview, Salameh rolls to the bottom of the flight of stairs in the underpass, having been wheeled joltingly down on the other side. Two young men quickly step out from behind their stalls in the underground mini-mall — standing either side of Salameh’s chair, they prepare to haul him up and out of the underpass. 

“I need another person at the front,” Salameh tells them.

“Yalla, Ahmed!” someone shouts.
On the count of two, the young men lift the wheelchair and carry Salameh — who leans forward and grips onto one of their forearms — up the 20 or so stairs.
When they reach the top, one of them wheels Salameh around and stays with him as he hails a taxi to go home. The others return below, where men are selling handbags and sunglasses. 

“Amman is zero percent accessible for people with disabilities,” Salameh told us, adding that it is difficult to enter most banks, grocery stores and supermarkets, or to enjoy any touristic sites. 

“Is it not my right to visit these places?” He asked. 

The city’s daunting topography compounds the struggles of people with disabilities. The capital, which was founded 2,000 years ago on seven hills, has now expanded to cover more than 20. Like a giant Snakes and Ladders board, Amman’s roads coil up and around the city’s contours, while flights of narrow, uneven, stairs cut jutting paths between the blocks of beige houses. 

Our months-long investigation found that the city’s buildings, streets and pavements are inaccessible and restrict independent mobility for people with physical and sensory disabilities. We interviewed Salameh and ten other people with disabilities, studied the related legislation and tested the accessibility of the seven areas which the government and the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) erroneously told us were barrier-free.

The Status Quo 

In mid-2019, we accompanied Asia Yaghi, a disability rights activist who uses a wheelchair, on a visit to eight random government institutions to test the accessibility of public facilities. The tour covered the Ministries of Culture, Social Development, Education, Labour and Health, the Supreme Judge Department and two GAM buildings in the Ras Al-Ain area downtown. 

We found that five of the eight buildings had ramps, two had lifts meeting visual and audio accessibility requirements, and three had accessible toilets — one of which was fully accessible and easy to use. Four of the eight facilities had at least one parking space for people with disabilities. But none of the eight public institutions we visited was fully accommodated for all types of physical and sensory disabilities. 

The findings of this investigation contradict repeated governmental assurances. In 2009, an ARIJ-supported investigative report documented how inhospitable Amman was for people with disabilities. Journalist Zaina Hamdan revealed insufficient governmental supervision on the enforcement of the Accessible Building Code. 

Since 2009, the government has issued a new law for the rights of persons with disabilities, amended the National Buildings Law and released a new version of the Building Requirements for People with Disabilities Code. It also launched a strategic ten-year plan in 2019 to make public facilities accessible. 

We found that poor enforcement of these new laws and regulations has meant the city remains inaccessible to people with disabilities. We also noticed interference from the authorities in the entities responsible for enforcing the new laws.

Muhanad al-Azzeh, the Secretary-General of the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities (HCD), a government body, said in a 2019 interview with the Jordan News Agency Petra that "accessible buildings represent around 2 per cent of the total number of premises in Jordan." 

He added that "the accessible establishments are not fully accessible; but partially accessible" and called for comprehensive accessibility for physical, hearing and visual disabilities. 

The UN defines accessibility as an environment that gives everyone the chance “to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life."

Accessibility requirements differ according to the type of disability. It might mean lower wash basins in toilets and wide spaces in parking lots, for example, or braille and a voice announcing the floor in lifts. 

 The definition of accessibility in the 2017 Law for the Rights of People with Disabilities 

Accessibility: The construction of buildings, roads, facilities, and other public and private sector venues in a way that is accessible to all members of the public, with adjustments in accordance with the Code of Building Requirements for Persons with Disabilities as issued in the the Jordan National Building Code and any other special standards issued or approved by the Council.

Promises and Action

GAM does not have a map of Amman’s accessible places, but its Executive Director of Engineering, Nima Qatanani, told us that seven areas in the capital were free of obstacles to persons with disabilities. These were King Faisal Square, Rainbow Street, Al-Wakalat Street, King Ghazi Street, Jebel Al-Hussein (from Sukaina School Street to Firas Intersection), the Citadel and Hashemite Square.

Ayman Saud, the head of GAM’s department for people with disabilities, reaffirmed that these seven areas were “100 percent accessible”. 

However, on a field visit to the seven places with Asia Yaghi, President of NGO “I Am A Human”, we found steep or non-existent ramps, few accessible parking spaces and trees or lampposts in the middle of pavements. 

Qatanani of GAM told us that 80 percent of municipal buildings were accessible, "at least for people with a physical disability — they have ramps.”

Her claim surprised Yaghi. “They think if there's a ramp it's accessible," she said, pointing out that true accessibility caters to all disabilities, including unseen, visual and hearing impairments. 

GAM classifies one of the sites, Jabal Hussein, as an ideal area for persons with disabilities. According to interviews with experts and activists, the idea for the project was developed after a Jordanian delegation visited Barcelona in 2013. The Municipality of Barcelona financed a small-scale model of the accessible European city in a residential and commercial area of Amman. 

Delegation members who visited Barcelona — including people with visual impairments and wheelchair users — told us that GAM did not consult them when implementing the Jabal Hussein project. Saud told us that people with disabilities tested out the area’s new facilities.

We visited the first phase of the project twice: once when it was under construction and once when it had been completed. 

A month before the completion of the first phase, in October 2019, Asia Yaghi’s wheelchair slipped on the smooth basalt pavements. The steep ramps were hard to use unassisted and often blocked by cars, some of which were parked in spaces for people with disabilities. Most shops had steps up to their entrance, and while the traffic lights did use aural cues, the sound was faint compared to the noise of the street. 

In a last visit to the project, in August 2020, 10 months after the launch date, we found that none of the shops had ramps allowing wheelchair users to enter. The engineer in charge of the project, Osama Jbour declared in an interview in October 2019 that GAM had contacted shop owners to install ramps in front of their shops, but that they had refused.

We asked eight jewelry and clothes shop owners in the area if GAM had reached out to them regarding ramps. Six of them said that they had not been contacted but would be willing to collaborate. Two said that they had been contacted, but had refused because the entrance to their shop was too narrow. 

During the visit, we found that the end of one of the pavements had no ramp and that the sound system of two out of the three traffic lights were broken. 

GAM designed accessible lanes for people with visual impairments, but they were poorly installed. Tactile tiles were fixed with glue, but came loose after being exposed to the elements. The municipality is currently bolting the tiles to the ground with screws.

All attempts to get an explanation from GAM about the issues documented in these visits were met with silence.

The Mayor of Amman, Yousef Al Shawarbeh, told us in a June 2019 interview that the new building code was “definitely” used in Jabal Hussein to make it accessible to the “highest international standards.” He added, “The code has been reflected on all pavements and all sidewalks.”

Jordan signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 — the same year it signed the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — and passed a progressive disability rights law in 2017, to great fanfare. NGOs praised the law for requiring the government to implement accessibility measures in schools, healthcare centers, hospitals and public spaces within five years of it coming into effect. 

The 2017 law requires GAM to install audio-assisted traffic lights and make all roads and buildings under their jurisdiction obstacle-free by August 2022. With less than two years until the deadline, people with disabilities in Amman have not seen any fundamental improvements to local accessibility.

Nima Qatanani, Executive Director of Engineering at GAM, said that the main challenge to accessibility in Jordan is that it is a “new concept”. But Jordanian legislation first addressed the issue more than 26 years ago. 

In 1993, Jordan introduced a code requiring engineers to construct buildings that were wheelchair-friendly — it didn't mention other disabilities — with fines of between 100 and 3000JOD ($140-$4230) for violating the law. 

Building code: the construction-related rules, conditions and technical requirements issued by the Jordanian National Building Council and accredited by the prime ministry, hold the responsible parties to account about meeting the requirements of the codes. 

But “there was no implementation for two or three decades… except for some random initiatives here and there,” says Al-Azzeh of the HCD, who is visually impaired. 

Amendments to the 2018 National Building Law require the relevant authorities not to ratify any construction schemes unless they comply with the building codes, and not to issue any property licenses until the necessary approvals are obtained.

The new amendments canceled the imposition of fines and replaced it with the power to withdraw licenses from infractors, be it the contractor or the engineer.

In March 2019, the Government updated the so-called Code of Building Requirements for Persons with Disabilities. The former Secretary General of the National Building Council, Jamal Qutaishat, confirmed in an interview that this Code applies to all construction projects and takes into account the accessibility requirements of physical, hearing and visual disabilities. The technical standards of stairs, elevators, floors, toilets, parking spots are all set out. 

Ten-year Plan 

The HCD, in collaboration with the Public Works and Housing Ministry, launched a ten-year national accessibility plan in March 2019 to rectify existing buildings and public facilities, (implementing provisions in the 2017 Act and the Code of Building Requirements for Persons with Disabilities.) 

The plan seeks to make at least 60% of facilities and public buildings that serve the public accessible by 2029 and to develop four model accessible areas in the center, north and south of Jordan by 2022.

In an interview, Azzeh raised concerns about the likelihood of the project being completed, and said that the amounts allocated to the project were “very modest.” 

In 2019, GAM allocated 1 million JOD ($1.41 million) to the project, while the Ministry of Public Works set aside 100,000JOD ($141,000). 

At the accessibility plan launch in March 2019, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz acknowledged that there was a "difference between the laws and strategies and the action on the ground."

Qatanani, the Executive Director of Engineering at GAM, thinks that replicating accessibility of old buildings is challenging because “Amman is an old city”. Owners of private buildings make the sidewalks in residential areas with no consideration for the needs of people with disabilities, she said, before recognizing that Ammanis with disabilities “must be feeling injustice”, adding that even “non-disabled” have trouble with pavements. 

“It’s Not My Job”

It seems, though, that GAM employees are not aware of the legislation or basic accessibility requirements that come under their remit. 

Qatanani told us: “I don’t think that GAM is the one in charge of inspecting the persons with disabilities code enforcement.” While Saud — the head of the Department for Disabilities — said he didn’t know of any government institution in charge of enforcing the code. “It’s not my job,” he added, “I don’t know about it.” 

Who’s in charge of enforcing the implementation of the Code? (BOX)

Under the new Code, property owners are required to make their spaces accessible for people with disabilities, and the Jordanian Engineers Association should verify that the design schemes meet the building requirements. The Greater Amman Municipality, other municipalities and the authorities that are in charge of granting facilities utility permits should then verify the implementation of the requirements that have been approved by the architect before finally issuing building licenses. 

The code explicitly assigned GAM to inspect implementation of the code. This hasn’t happened, so  the Minister of Public Works and Housing has decided to give the task to the Civil Defense Department.

According to the First Annual Report on the Status of Persons with Disabilities and their Rights in Jordan, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing contacted the engineering offices, engineering companies and the Contractors Association to ensure that the code was implemented across construction projects. The Prime Minister issued a circular urging the body not to grant licenses or ratifying architectural schemes unless they followed the accessible building requirements.

Yet a 2017 shadow report for the UN said that the 1993 building code was still flouted because of the unclear roles of the "plethora" of relevant government bodies.

The Mysterious List

GAM has contradictory numbers regarding accessible facilities and areas around Amman. As well as the seven "accessible" streets, Saud of GAM showed us a 2018 report — compiled, he said, before he took the job — listing 44 accessible hotels, 29 streets, 19 parks and 9 traffic lights.

Saud didn't provide us with the names of the places, so how they arrived at the numbers is a mystery.

Azzeh of the HCD, who hadn't heard of this report, was unconvinced. "29 parks? I really doubt it."

An Arduous Educational Journey

Hadeel Abu Soufeh, 29, struggled to get through education before finally earning her BA in Nutrition. As a wheelchair user, her journey through elementary, secondary and higher education was full of obstacles.

Abu Soufeh was involved in a car accident at the age of 11 that left her partially paralized. All of a sudden, the countless stairs and few ramps at her elementary school left her reliant on help from others.  

Numerous secondary schools, both public and private, rejected her applications. When she was at last accepted by a public school in the Shmeisani area, her father had to pay to install the ramps.

"The university stage was not easy as well,” she recalls, saying there were few ramps or lifts. 

There were no accessible toilets at university either, she added. "We used to fast the day before we went to University, we used not to eat or drink because there was not even a single accessible toilet. We had to give up our simplest right; to eat and drink, which sometimes caused serious health issues because of dehydration."

Thanks to a campaign by a group Abu Soufeh co-founded, the university — the University of Jordan — has since built ramps, adapted toilets and hired sign language interpreters. In 2018 it made special tactile lanes to help people with visual impairments get around campus.


Steps Everywhere 

Abu Soufeh says that across Amman random steps in front buildings block her path. "There are always three decorative steps."

Khaled al-Barabawari, 50, who has had muscular dystrophy since the age of one, says his children have to push his wheelchair up the two steps in front of the door to his house. "If they are not there... I won't be shy, I will say it: I use my hands and knees." Al-Barabawari lives in Dahyet Al Rasheed, a suburb of western Amman, and owns a minimarket.


Public Transportation

Amman's residents with disabilities who do not own their cars get around using inaccessible taxis, (which weren’t mentioned at all in the 2017 law). Disability rights activist Asia Yaghi told us they are "very difficult" to flag down. "Most of them refuse." She has waited more than an hour for a taxi to stop. 

Those who do not have enough money to take taxis usually depend on buses. According to the 2017 law, all buses have to be accessible by 2022.

GAM launched the "Bus Rapid Transit" project in June 2019, saying 135 new accessible buses would start serving the capital, and that this year that number would rise to 286. They are due to finish work on the bus lanes and bus stops by the end of 2020.

People with disabilities who are able to drive face their own separate problem: finding a parking spot. Theoretically, license plates starting with "81" allow access to spaces set aside for those with disabilities. But other drivers routinely grab these free places. This is illegal. The Traffic Department told us that in 2018 it gave out 4584 parking tickets to people "parking in a spot for specific vehicles." That number was 1857 in the first half of 2019. Officials didn't tell us, however, which vehicles were included in this tally besides cars for people with disabilities. A ticket carries a fine of 10JD. But outstanding tickets were waived by a royal pardon in late 2018.  

The Dream of Accessible Jordan

People with disabilities we spoke to were most irritated by the fact that accessibility adaptations are inexpensive and simple.

Aya Aghabi, the late founder of social enterprise Accessible Jordan, a directory of barrier-free places across the country, told us in 2019 that people with disabilities are never invited to help with the design or construction of new projects and often feel "secluded". We interviewed Aghabi, who had used a wheelchair since a car accident at the age of 18, last February. In late August of that year, she passed away aged 28.

"I want to highlight the places that are currently accessible so that people don't have to wait 10 years to actually live their lives," Aghabi told us in our final interview. "Why do we have to wait for the government to come and force us to make our businesses, schools, or clinics accessible?" she asks. "We need to take responsibility ourselves."

But many of the changes can only be made by a government willing to invest the resources in this long-unresolved problem. The authorities must  keep to its commitments on the 2017 law, and make sure that by 2022, Amman is just as welcoming to people with disabilities as to anyone else.

This investigation was carried out with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

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