Not many cities around the world have more significance than Brussels for Iranians these days. This, of course, is because of the EU negotiations and debates on how to help the Iran nuclear deal survive since the United States withdrew in May and threatens new sanctions. But Brussels’ relevance for Iran doesn’t end there. The European Union, as the main international actor engaging seriously and regularly with the government of Iran, should also include discussions about the rights of millions of Iranians with disabilities.
Over the past 18 months, the Center for Human Rights in Iran and Human Rights Watch interviewed people with disabilities in Iran, who shared their stories of isolation, humiliation, and discrimination. We released our report here in Brussels last week to bring their stories to the place where Iran is high on the agenda.
We interviewed people like Alireza, a 22-year-old man with Cerebral Palsy, who loves going to the gym with other people his age but relies on his 65-year-old mother to help him dress and leave the house. He also needs to check to make sure he has taxi fare. Public transportation in his town isn’t accessible for wheelchair users, and he needs to pay a taxi driver extra to transport his wheelchair in the trunk.
But he doesn’t always have taxi fare. Unemployment among people with disabilities in Iran is estimated to be more than 60 percent, with very few services or information available from the government to make sure employers will hire people with disabilities, and Alireza has not been able to get a job. His only source of income is a meager disability pension, one-sixth of the minimum wage. The monthly sum is so low that it’s almost insulting, he told us. It doesn’t even buy one meal per day. He relies on family to support him.
The World Bank estimates that about 15 percent of the people in any country have disabilities. In Iran, this amounts to about 12 million people. That’s millions of people who may face serious obstacles to participating in daily activities that most people take for granted, such as going to work or school, gathering with friends or relatives, attending cultural events, shopping for groceries, or visiting the doctor.
Physical barriers aren’t the only serious impediments to full inclusion and equality. People with disabilities regularly confront stigma and discrimination. People we interviewed said it was common even for the social workers of the State Welfare Organization, the agency primarily responsible for services for people with disabilities, to insult people when they come to seek services they are entitled to or refuse to provide the services at all. Often this is due to lack of awareness and training; as well as insufficient numbers of social workers to deliver the necessary services promptly and consistently.
Doctors often don’t bother to get consent from patients with disabilities for treatment, even for such serious treatments as electroshock therapy for people with psychosocial disabilities.
“The first time I had electroshock, a heart physician checked me the day before,” one person told us. “Then they took me for the shock, and it was only then that I learned what it was like.” He was given the treatment repeatedly without his consent.
With European countries taking a hard look at the situation in Iran, the timing is perfect for them to remind the Iranian government about its human rights responsibilities. This includes the need to enable an estimated 12 million people in Iran to live an equal and dignified life with full access to services they need to live a full life.
Iran took on these obligations when it ratified the United Nations disability rights treaty in 2009. The European Union is also committed under the treaty to ensure that disability rights are enforced not only at home but in its external affairs as well.
Millions of Iranians with disabilities, their families, and disability advocates have a simple and urgent request of the European countries when they sit down with Iran. The Europeans should urge the Iranian government to ensure that people with disabilities have full equality under the law, and in making policy and allocating resources as well. If Europe can put these issues on the table during these talks, the voices of people with disabilities in Iran will be heard, and they will be hard to ignore.
Jane Buchanan is deputy director for disability rights at Human Rights Watch.