Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Turkey, awareness grows about ongoing discrimination, inaccessibility for blind people there

From Today's Zaman in Turkey:

This past week was Blind Awareness Week in Turkey, with many organizations for the blind reiterating familiar statements from previous years, complaining about the joblessness rate and limited or no access to education in the case of the blind, as well as the excruciatingly insufficient municipal infrastructure in Turkish cities that makes leaving the home an adventure many are often more than happy to avoid.

The problems are always the same, and nothing seems to change for Turkey’s sightless population. According to data from the Altı Nokta Association for the Blind released last week as part of a statement to mark the week, there are 40,000 blind people in İstanbul, with 38,000 of these people not being able to leave their homes. Altı Nokta İstanbul branch President Murat Demirok says there are about 8.5 million disabled people in all of Turkey, with about 700,000 of these being visually impaired.

“The percentage of the blind that can get an education or find a job is about 1 percent of the total number of the visually disabled. We want to bring this up to at least 90 percent,” Demirok said.

Many other associations pointed to similar problems. Turkey chooses to lock up people with disabilities who might otherwise be very successful, as is proved by the many blind lawyers, engineers and teachers who have managed to get somewhere in spite of their disability. What beats most experts is why municipalities still implement zoning plans -- despite many laws and regulations that have been passed to provide accessibility to the disabled -- that leave people with disabilities out. So has there been no change at all regarding the state of the disabled, and particularly the blind?

According to Lokman Ayva, the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) İstanbul deputy and the only handicapped member of Parliament as he is vision-impaired, there are already some positive changes in attitudes toward the disabled. In a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Ayva said there have been some positive developments. He said that in the past few years, the most important change regarding the blind and those with other disabilities was the change in people’s perceptions of them.

“There has been an important change in the perceptions of society. A first in Turkey’s history, the blind diplomat was appointed to the Foreign Ministry in November. Many similar developments have occurred in the past year. For example, [singer] Metin Şentürk broke the world speed driving record for the vision-impaired. These all point to changes in societal perceptions. When you think about these, you don’t think about the potential legal problems. For example, in Şentürk’s case, in fact there is a violation because putting a blind man behind the wheel is a crime under current legislation. These all indicate that the outlook of administrators, legislators and policy implementers is changing. Think about the man who lent his car for that; it was a very expensive luxury model.”

He also said there have been significant increases in the number of blind children attending schools. “This is very important, the number of blind students increased to 216,000 as of 2010. This number stood at around 50,000 in 2005. And there have also been some graduates, so the actual figure should be around 300,000. There is also an increase in the number of the disabled in politics. In 2002, the number of professional athletes with disabilities was 2000. Today, it is around 26,000.”

Ayva said the visibility of the blind has also been increasing. In the past two years, the Ministry of Education hired 1,000 teachers with disabilities. Ayva noted that blind people could not be appointed to schools as teachers under old legislation as recently as five years ago. “In addition to this, the Ministry of Education hired about 4,000 disabled officers as public servants. Recently, 14,000 civil servants with disabilities started serving in the environment and health ministries,” he added.

Ayva said that although these figures could be meaningless statistics to the able-bodied who get up in the morning and go to work everyday, they meant a revolution for 14,000 households.

Another positive development in this area Ayva pointed to was a visible increase in media coverage regarding people with disabilities.

He noted the government started lending financial support to 90,000 families with disabled family members in each of the past two years, which meant that currently 180,000 families with members with a disability are being paid the minimum wage monthly, which he noted translated into increased activity in bank accounts of the disabled. “We recently had a meeting with the Union of Banks, and according to this, the total volume of money transfers in the accounts of people who are officially categorized as having disabilities is TL 5 billion. This is important because it is now forcing banks to upgrade their systems, such as integrating signalization to ATMs to help the blind, to serve the disabled. We will see great developments in banks in 2011 in this area.”

In other developments, Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım said last Thursday the ministry was introducing a new device called the “Seeing Eye,” which would work like a GPS navigator to help the visually impaired get around the city. Yıldırım made the announcement during a visit to a primary school for the blind to mark Blind Awareness Week. Yıldırım said the government was taking important steps to serve the disabled and had budgeted TL 10 billion for the disabled, something no government had done before.

The pilot areas chosen for the first-testing of the device are several neighborhoods in Ankara and İstanbul. The device will enable the sightless to find their way without needing any help. He said the device would act as a guide, or an “electronic cane,” adding that it would be distributed to the blind free of charge.

Atilla Çelik, head of the General Directorate of Communications, said there were talks with GSM service providers to allow the use of these devices as mobile phones. Çelik said similar devices exist in other parts of the world, but noted that the Seeing Eye would be a first in terms of many of its unique features. He said compatible devices that work with the Seeing Eye would be installed at bus stops and on city buses, which he noted will greatly improve the transportation experience of the visually impaired.

The device might be helpful, but without proper signalization, it will still be challenging for a blind person to find her way. A wheelchair still cannot move easily along an İstanbul street, and that situation is no better in most other provinces of Turkey. The AK Party’s Ayva says this is bound to change once financial penalties for those who disregard the legislation on ensuring accessibility for the disabled start being issued. He notes that in 2012 -- the deadline for property owners and managers to make the necessary changes to provide accessibility -- those who have ignored the disabled will start getting fined. He added: “Another problem is that architects do not know how to plan for these. They need special education in that. The Chamber of Architects should organize such courses, but it doesn’t.”