Physical Disabilities in Children in the Middle East

Some kids just never get a break! In the Middle East, and especially so in its developing nations, birth defects and genetic disorders are rampant. For example, 69.9/1000 live births in the Arab world have some sort of genetic anomaly compared with 52.1/1000 live births in Europe, North America, and Australia. This difference is significant—and likely not to change anytime soon. The reasons?

  1. Twenty-five to sixty percent of all Middle Eastern marriages are consanguineous, i.e., occurring between closely related persons. This is often a marriage between first cousins where the prevalence of congenital disorders run about 1.7% - 2% higher than the typical background risk might suggest.  
  2. There are several isolated subpopulations where inbreeding is quite common.
  3. Unlike the nations of Europe and North America which have a multitude of public health programs that deal with preventing/responding to birth defects, there are generally no similar programs in the Middle East. Such is largely restricted by cultural and legal limitations that are deeply rooted in a mostly tribal society.
  4. Poverty—which has a strong relationship to a youngster’s long-term economic and physical well being. Poor nutrition in the first few months of a newborn's life can have adverse and irreversible consequences on cognitive development.

Now imagine these kids unable to go to school, to play outside, go to church—or even their village—because they are unable to walk. Children who must be carried everywhere. The effect on the child is severe. For the parents, the burden is both personal and societal.

By some estimates there are as many as 150 million children in the world who live with a disability; 80% of them live in developing countries. Most do not receive necessary treatment and most are discriminated against. A trifling 2% have access to education.

Egypt’s disabled population, for example, is a considerable minority whose rights were largely ignored by the last regime and whose future lay in the hope that attention will be given post Revolution. Early indicators have been positive, and for the first time in decades, Egyptian politicians are beginning to integrate persons with disabilities into political platforms. Other countries lag.

Tragically, in developing countries, ‘shame’ is often attached to the family of a disabled child. This is due in large part to the lack of a social emphasis on equality of the disabled child. Cultural stigmatization, in fact, is the predominant reason many kids in these countries have never left their home . . . some, even their bedroom. For those who have done so, prevalent, judgmental attitudes bombard them with society’s messaging.

Until Arab society is fully convinced that a disabled person has human rights and can be an effective member in society, I doubt that we will ever reach a point where we can confidently say that we have embraced disabled persons and accepted them as peers.”  (Fr. Badih el-Hage, General Director of Beit Chabab hospital for the disabled in Lebanon summing up the situation of the vast majority of disabled people in the Arab world.)