Turkey's Many Disabled, Long Shunned by Society, Play New Role in Politics

Government failures to address the causes of disability or fix antiquated social services have left disabled Turks seemingly invisible. But a handful of organizers are pushing for change


A disabled soccer player belonging to a Turkish amputee football team gets ready for a practice session in Ankara. Reuters

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- It gives Şafak Pavey goosebumps to talk about it: the thousands of disabled children in Turkey who live hidden from view, out of sight of neighbors, of guests, of the community.

"When I visit very poor houses in areas in Istanbul, or the Black sea or Izmir," said Pavey, 34, a newly-elected member of Turkey's parliament from the country's main opposition party, who lost her left arm and leg in a train accident, "in every other house, there is a disabled kid hidden in the back garden. If I stay for long enough, for an hour or two, they come out."

According to a 2002 government study, an estimated 8.5 million disabled people live in Turkey, at the time nearly 13 percent of the population, which has since grown to 79 million people. But walking around a major city like Istanbul, one would never know. The disabled are kept sequestered at home, a source of shame for the family. And how could someone with physical challenges navigate such a city anyway, with its steep hills, busted-up sidewalks and crowded, cobblestone streets?

The week before the elections, though, Pavey and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party the Republican People's Party (CHP), met with nearly 2,500 disabled voters and their families at a large rally on a sweltering Istanbul morning at the Ataturk stadium in Bakirkoy, a middle-class neighborhood by the airport. Dozens of people with visual, hearing and speech impairments, the physically and mentally challenged, and elderly citizens waved flags and lined up to shake Pavey's hand.

Pavey, who represents the Anatolian side of Istanbul, was one of 14 disabled candidates from her party seeking to claim a seat in Turkey's 550-member parliament, although she is running as a mainstream candidate, and not as part of a quota. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) put forward 11 disabled candidates on their lists of nominees, but many were lower down on the party lists, decreasing their chances of actually winning a seat.

According to Dikmen Bezmez, a sociology professor at Bahcesehir University who researches disability in Turkey, politicians have figured out that talking about disability is an easy way to score points with the Turkish public.

"Politicians have discovered a field, which, compared to some of the other issues high on the agenda, is not 'risky' at all," she said. "The idea is it is a 'good' thing to 'help' disabled people, even though in practice there are many cases of maltreatment."

Comparing a disability to a stone thrown in water, Pavey noted that, for every disabled person in Turkey, there are at least four people (often family members) whose lives are deeply affected by its ripple effect. At least 33 million people, according to her logic, stand to benefit from inclusive policies that reduce barriers to health care, education, employment and the active participation they have so long been denied in Turkish society. Currently, an estimated 98 percent of the disabled rely on family members for care.

At the two-hour rally, the CHP constituents enjoyed a hearty Turkish breakfast under tents shielding them from a merciless sun. Sweet buns, olives and hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers, honey, cheese and jams were served courtesy of the party, and volunteers tramped back and forth across the grass refilling plastic cups of hot, strong Turkish tea.


Campaign web ad for Şafak Pavey

Supporter Ramazan Bag, 42, is blind, as are two of his three brothers. "We are victims of kinship marriage," he explained. A university graduate in philosophy ("I think, therefore I am," he said, before jokingly telling me I'm beautiful), he is now married with two children and works as a telephone operator.

He called Kılıçdaroğlu "a new hope for Turkish people," citing his secular views and fear of "becoming Iran" under the current Islamist government. He added that he objects to the AKP's neoliberal economic policies.

"This form of capitalism is very bad," he said. "I think we need a social state: more economic development, more education, more employment." He earns 2000 Turkish lira a month, approximately $1,268, but said he needs additional support from the government.

"My life is more expensive than for other people. Other people can go anywhere by walking, I must call a taxi, and it is expensive." Currently, the state allocates a maximum of 292 lira per month for persons with disabilities in need of care, according to a shadow report submitted to the United Nation's Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in May of 2010. The report noted that with these sums, "The only thing guaranteed is a life at the hunger level."

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Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based freelance writer for major U.S. magazines and newspapers, and the senior editor and writer for womenintheworld.org.

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