Mohammed Yousuf grew up in a small town near Hyderabad, India, and contracted a serious form of polio when he was 2  years old. It initially paralyzed most of his body, and after significant treatment, he was left with only a remaining impairment in his legs. His parents’ friends told them he would never lead a normal life, and for years he was unable to go to school, both because he was only able to move around by crawling and because of the way people would treat him. When his parents were finally able to obtain leg braces for him, he was only ridiculed further, and he preferred to continue crawling in order to get from one place to another. When he was 12, his grandmother came to visit.

“She saw something in me,” Yousuf says. “She said ‘I’m taking him with me to my house and will see what I need to do to take care of him.’” She brought him to Hyderabad and hired a personal assistant whom he was entirely dependent upon to do many things, including carrying his books to school. He was able to make up a lot, though not all, of the lost time in school, and most importantly, he made a couple of  good friends. “I felt so good about that,” he says. “Even if some people called me names, I had people to go to.” After graduating from school and going on to achieve a degree in engineering, Yousuf still had to struggle to be accepted. Employers did not think he would be capable of doing more than clerical work, and refused to hire him for jobs for which he was qualified.

In 1990, he moved to the U.S. for a Master’s degree, and went on to work for Chrysler, General Motors and the U.S.Department of Transportation. In 2001, he established what is now called the EquallyAble Foundation (www.equallyable. org) to try and make a difference for individuals with disabilities who encountered some of the same struggles he did. Growing up, Yousuf says, “I felt very attached to God but an even greater change happened when I moved in with my grandparents. My grandfather was very pious, and when I saw him praying five times a day, I tried to do what he did.” Because of his leg braces, he had to pray with his shoes on, and still does to this day. His grandfather was very helpful and told him it was acceptable to pray that way. During the two years that he lived in that home, he says, “I didn’t lose sight. I prayed. I had hope.” From an Islamic standpoint, the exclusions Yousuf faced were unacceptable.

Imam Zaid Shakir of Zaytuna Institute describes the prophetic example of how to regard people with disabilities. “The Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), as was his habit, made every effort to include people with disabilities in the highest level of communal life,” he says. “For example, Abdullah bin Umm Maktum, the blind man about whom Surah ‘Abasa (Quran 80) was revealed, was made governor of Madina in the Prophet s absence, even though he was blind. So his ability to hold the highest office suggests that the Prophet looked at the ability of the person and not the disability of the person. [He thought] in terms of how that person could be a benefit in the community.”Yet not all disabilities may be as easy to understand as a physical disability that affects a person’s ability to walk, or a sensory disability that affects a person’s ability to see. Many disabilities are invisible. They can impact a person’s speech, his/her behavior toward others, and as communities and as individuals we are presented with a greater challenge to learn and reflect upon how to relate to these individuals.

Safiyyah Amina Muhammad, for example, is the mother of a boy named Sufyaan in New Jersey. Sufyaan has autism spectrum disorder, a disability which has caused him to behave in a different and sometimes disruptive manner in their mosque, Masjid Waarith ud Deen. Community members initially responded to such behavior with immense disapproval, commenting loudly about how she was a bad parent who could not keep her son under control. Sufyaan’s other siblings were embarrassed, and Muhammad, like many others in that situation, simply might have gone home and stayed away from the mosque. But she refused. “He deserves to pray,” she says. “He has a right to faith, too.” She went to the imam and told him about the situation, and he addressed the topic of compassion during his sermon the next Friday. The community as a whole soon became eager to understand more about autism and learn how to support Muhammad, Sufyaan, and the rest of their family members so they could all maintain a positive and meaningful experience at the mosque. Masjid Waarith ud Deen now serves as a role model to other communities in similar situations. It was featured in a PBS Religion and Ethics episode in 2009 and in a new book by Mark Pinsky, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion.

Stories like Sufyaan’s remind us that there may be many occasions when we pass judgment on an individual or a family in our community without understanding the circumstances. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have some kind of disability. One in 3 people have a family member or close friend with a disability. And yet many report that they do not know a person who has a disability in their mosque. Sometimes this is because there are people who have invisible disabilities that we do not detect. Sometimes this is because people with disabilities feel so unwelcome or unsupported that they cannot or will not come. And sometimes this is because we forget that many elders in our midst face challenges that may be “disabilities” — like hearing or vision loss, arthritis, depression, an unsteady gait, or diabetes. One of the most beautiful things about Muslim communities around the world is the value placed on the elderly. This may serve as a model for the community when dealing with individuals with disabilities. Younger members of our community like Yousuf also deserve accommodation. Still other community members might not need a chair or similar assistance — perhaps all they need from their community is a smile.

“There are people you’re avoiding,” says Ginny Thornburgh, Director of Interfaith Initiative at the American Association for People with Disabilities. “Maybe you’re avoiding them because you re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing to them and offend them. But sometimes people don’t want you to go out of your way to welcome them — they just want to be valued. They want to feel that their presence is appreciated, even enjoyed. Maybe there is a reason why the accessibility ramp at the mosque isn’t being used. Is it possible that a person came to the mosque but found no friends?” Everyone wants to feel part of a community. “They might be thinking, ‘I just need you to know that I like flowers,’” she says, “‘and to know that my mom is really ill right now and I’m worried about that.’” The gift of friendship is the best way for us to include everyone in our community, in addition to demonstrating dignity, respect, and patience for everyone in our midst.

Keeping Islam Accessible

In 2000, Nashiru Abdulai and other deaf Muslim students worked to explain their particular needs to the Muslim community in Rochester, NY. Nashiru came from Ghana to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). As with his classes, the university provided him and other deaf Muslim students with a sign-language interpreter during every Jummah prayer. Whenever he went to a mosque off-campus, however, no interpreter was provided. But as the Islamic Center of Rochester came to understand the growing needs of the large deaf community there, it did everything it could to make sure their mosque was accessible and supportive. “They opened one hall so we could have American Sign Language (ASL) classes for the hearing community every weekend,” he says. “We did that and it was very successful. And whenever someone from the Islamic Center of Rochester came to RIT to give a talk, they made sure there was an interpreter there.” Even more significant, it was through the support of the Muslim community in Rochester that Abdulai and other deaf Muslims were able to establish Global Deaf Muslim (GDM) in 2005. “Without the help of the Muslim community in Rochester, there would be no GDM,” Abdulai says. “The Islamic Center of Rochester provided us with funds to pay for the paperwork and moral support, giving us all the attention we needed to go through with the paperwork.”

Global Deaf Muslim (www.globaldeafmuslim. org), of which Abdulai is now president, works to make Islam accessible to deaf Muslims worldwide, and to address the rights and needs of deaf Muslims. Many deaf people use American Sign Language as a first language, increasing the need for religious materials in American Sign Language, including the Quran. Imam Zaid Shakir also notes, “The Prophet mentions: ‘God will help His servant as long as His servant helps his brother,’ and a related hadith: ‘You are given divine aid and you are given your sustenance based on how you treat the weak amongst you.’ So how those who are weak or downtrodden or disabled are treated [in a community] is an indication of the degree of divine aid an individual or group of believers is given.”

If we fail to provide access to the deaf community in our mosques, as Imam Shakir says, we are committing oppression by violating“the right of a person with a particular disability to religious guidance. So if there’s no deaf interpretation for a deaf person then that person is being oppressed…. Therefore it’s an imperative that Muslims make every possible measure to provide accessibility and services, especially those related to education, those related to public health and safety — otherwise people who are suffering from particular disabilities who are denied those things are being oppressed. It’s a grave wrong that’s condemnable both in the Quran and Sunnah,” he says.

In many cases, Muslim communities are often simply unaware of the needs of individuals with disabilities in their midst, until a brave individual points out their challenges and works very hard to change the community’s response. Some individuals and families find this challenge to be more than they are willing to take on, and prefer to try to keep the disability hidden. “Privacy is an Islamic value,” says Debbie DePalma, a disability advocate at JJ’s List, a Chicago-based nonprofit. “We often are not comfortable with sharing a personal story because there is a lot of sensitivity about privacy. We don’t air our dirty laundry, and sometimes we don’t even tell people if we’re in pain. This becomes unfortunate when this privacy also comes with a sense of shame, because we think a disability is somehow a punishment. And how does that make a person with a disability feel?”

“The idea of disabilities being shameful is something we’re moving away from,” DePalma adds.  This is a very exciting time. We’re moving far past the idea of giving charity to people with disabilities, and thinking more along the lines of how to help people with disabilities be independent and live fully functioning lives. A lot of this has to do with technological advances: people who wear eyeglasses used to be visually impaired; people who are blind now have computers that read to them.” This is in large part, she says, due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law enacted in 1990 which required accessible spaces in every parking lot, required employers to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, and more. Disability advocates like DePalma and those before her have worked for decades to change the way our society views people with disabilities, providing them with the opportunity are able to worship and attend events like everyone else.

Many Muslims with disabilities feel that when society-at-large rejects them, they should find a welcoming home in the Muslim community, but oftentimes the opposite is true. Churches and synagogues tend to be more welcoming for people with disabilities, providing accessibility ramps at the main entrance, giving individuals with intellectual disabilities important roles like carrying sacred objects or handing out programs, and providing listening devices to community members who are hard-of-hearing. Working with individuals of other faiths has been incredibly helpful for people like DePalma, who spoke on her work with the Christian community at the 2011 ISNA Convention.

There is so much we can learn from the experiences of others. “This is a great way to reach out to the interfaith community,” she says. “It melts away religious and cultural barriers when you can relate to someone else who is trying to address the same issue. We can work on these things together as a coalition, to improve the situation in the society-at-large.”

At the same time, there is much that others have to learn from the Muslim community. When Global Deaf Muslim held an interfaith conference in Washington, DC, they were surprised that deaf members of the Christian community did not have a similar organization. The Christian members were very inspired by Abdulai and his colleagues.

How to Be Inclusive

In many cases, Muslim communities become more accepting and inclusive of people with disabilities when those people themselves and their family members work hard to make it happen. This places a great deal of hardship on a family that is already doing all it can to make sure their loved one is accepted at work or school, and in many other areas. The last place they should have to face these challenges is at their mosques. There are many ways in which those of us who do not personally struggle with disabilities can help. Communities can start by ensuring that all events and the facilities where they take place are accessible for people in wheelchairs and provide interpreters, written materials, or other similar resources upon request. Oftentimes people with disabilities will not attend events because they assume no arrangements have been made for them, so it is equally important to publicize that these events are accessible. A phone number should be provided on all flyers or announcements, asking people with disabilities to call if they need any special accommodations. Islamic centers can also include similar announcements in their newsletters, so people are aware that this is a priority and feel more welcome in the community. Some Islamic centers have held potluck dinners or disability pride events to highlight the importance of Muslims with disabilities and their contributions to the community. For example, Mohammed Yousuf ’s organization, the EquallyAble Foundation, joined together with the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Va., for a Special Eid Day. Some families may be reluctant to attend other events with the broader community, so this provided them with a fun opportunity to interact with others with and without disabilities. Most importantly, we can do our best to be welcoming and inclusive toward people with disabilities in our communities. Furthermore, Islam, says Imam Zaid Shakir says, requires Muslims to stop oppression, and to do all we can to promote the inclusion of everyone in our communities, to provide them with access to their God-given right to religious knowledge and practice. ISNA strives to be inclusive of Muslims with disabilities at events like the annual Convention, and also advocates on behalf of all people with disabilities with the federal government. ISNA is a member of the Steering Committee of the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC), which seeks to speak out and take action on disability policy issues with Congress, the President, and society at large. Specifically, IDAC members urge the federal government and local faith communities to take action to promote independence and community living, education, employment, and access to health care for all people with disabilities.

Maggie Siddiqi is program coordinator at the Islamic Society of North America’s Washington, DC office .

Republish with permission from Islamic Horizon

photo credit:Keoni Cabral via photopin cc