Unmosque-ing the Stigma Behind Disabilities in the Muslim Community
MUHSEN makes Naperville mosque community accepting towards special needs families
By: Nabiha Asim
Feryaal Tahir and her family were once afraid to bring their Autistic family member to the mosque. Just as any other Muslim wanting to partake in mosque activities, F. Tahir took her sister to the mosque and as they were having a good time, F. Tahir started to notice unwanted stares and a woman scooting herself and her daughter away from them.
Tahir and her family truly felt unwanted at the mosque when a woman once told Tahir’s mother that she didn’t need to bring her special needs daughter to the mosque because it was not obligatory upon her and as a result, her family suffered from not being able to attend community events.
Such was the story of executive director of MUHSEN, Joohi Tahir and her family before she helped establish MUHSEN (Muslims Understanding and Helping Special Education Needs) three years ago when the organization, aimed at making communities a more welcoming place for people with disabilities of all kinds, was founded.
Access to normal day or normal Muslim activities isn’t always an option for special needs families. Leaving behind their loved ones or being unable to join leisure events is the case with most families with disabilities. From the omnipresent resentment, to the rude comments to the stares, Muslim special needs families have been quietly banished from their mosques. Ousted from the heart of the Muslim community, these families found themselves affected by a disheartened, un-prophetic stigma.
Out of sincere love for their special family members, otherwise known as “people of paradise,” a few individuals made it their mission, after enduring hardships as well as lending each other an ear, to ensure these innocent individuals get the equal treatment they deserve.
“We were hearing from families saying ‘I feel the need to have a spiritual connection with my faith, but I can’t even go to the masjid (mosque) without someone staring at me or I can’t go without someone making a rude comment about my loved one. A lot of people, myself included, were unmosqued and we felt like we belonged there and have a right to be there. The masjid is the home of every single believer. We should be saying welcome and that’s what gave birth to the certification program,” J. Tahir said.
The interaction with a disabled individual is like a foreign encounter for most Tahir explains. The thought to be cursed, non-existent, unnamed members of society were unwelcomed due to a cultural baggage which made it taboo for individuals to talk about illnesses and disabilities. Silenced by the ignorance of society, the cry of special needs families for help and acceptance was never heard until Muhsen gave them a chance. Through Muhsen’s survey, families were opening up and admitting for the first time they had a child with a disability and wanted their children to be included in community activities.
“Now, by sharing awareness, by the organization, by building momentum, kind of building a family kind of feeling of support; saying that there are other people out there like you, we’ve seen that stigma slowly being lifted. Is it gone? No. But our numbers are exploding…In Chicagoland alone there’s a need for four to five different support groups in different communities because we have so many people who are coming out now and saying ‘I need help.’ So that to me shows, Alhamdulillah, that the organization mission is working and people are gravitating towards it,” J. Tahir said.
Through awareness made possible by countrywide events and volunteer trainings along with accommodations made to meet each community and families’ unique needs, the disabled community was able to make their presence known.
“Because I have a child with a disability, I live on the other side of that fence. I felt the resentment, I felt the looks and the ‘Oh my god, what’s this kid doing.’ I’ve been through all of that and to see the community turn around. And the only change that’s come has been Muhsen. Alhamdulillah, Allah (God) swt is truly showering blessings on this project because it’s amazing the change we’ve seen,” J. Tahir said.
Living in Naperville for 22 years, J. Tahir never felt more comfortable in her community as she does now. Through Muhsen’s programs, including the rigorous Masjid (mosque) Certification Program, she saw her mosque, the Islamic Center of Naperville (ICN), turn and slowly lift the stigma into a place of acceptance. Muhsen’s masjid certification program helped the ICN community become a more accommodating and accepting environment by completing the silver, gold levels and onto becoming platinum certified.
“When Muhsen came along, it brought awareness and understanding that this community was lacking. For the past two years we have taken my sister to the masjid and many times opening without much thought. She is always greeted by many smiling faces, faces that understand and really want her to be there. Faces who have provided accommodations for her to be there. Faces who know how much my family missed out over the years and promise it will never happen again,” F.Tahir said.
Of the various volunteers in the ICN community, one particular person has been the voice and safe space of these unheard families. Heartbroken and touched by the stories of her good friend J. Tahir, Muhsen Volunteer Anjum Mohsinuddin decided it was time to lend a helping hand. It was Mohsinuddin who has turned the ICN community into the accepting environment it is today. Leading each Sunday Social Hour for special needs families and the Muhsen ICN Al-Falah Academy weekend school program, Mohinsudden works to treat each special needs individual as an equal counterpart.
“I was shocked that there are brothers and sisters that don’t have it that easy. So it really hit home and I sat there in this lecture crying nonstop…It was really sad to know that there’s this outlet for everybody but it’s not for everybody. So that was the minute I signed up as a volunteer for Muhsen. Muhsen was fairly new…I went and spoke to my masjid leads and I said you know there is a part of this community that is missing, and from then on we started inviting. It was like an invitation to come to the mosque; the mosque will welcome you,” J. Tahir said.
Mohinsudden works to give equal treatment for all whether abled or with a special need, she strongly believes everyone should have the same access to activities whether it’s reading the Quran, going to the museum or going skydiving she explains. Safeguarding each aspect of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, Muslims have thousands of authentic sayings from the Prophet (pbuh) including ones about meeting the needs of disabled people. Muhsen is in the works to revive this prophetic tradition.
“What happened to the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him)? How was that forgotten? So that’s what Muhsen’s trying to do; bring about that Muslims do understand and we should be educated and we should understand that everybody in whatever spectrum of life you’re in, needs to be treated equally,” Mohinsudden said.
Thanks to her, J. Tahir can now bring her autistic child to the mosque in Ramadan knowing that mosque leaders will have already thought ahead to include a special buffet just for special needs families with no wait.
“They’re getting included; they’re becoming emerged in all the activities…ICN was the first one to say we have to accommodate our special needs families. So they’re accepting of the fact that these people are there, they’re thinking of them, they’re thinking ahead…To me that’s acceptance. When you’re thinking about these families and you’re planning for these families and for Eid salah, they’re already thinking ahead …So much beauty that comes out of it and communities become generally overall more accepting,” J. Tahir said.
The goal of Muhsen at the end is simply acceptance; acceptance of a unit of society who remind us to be grateful for our faculties and give individuals a chance to be rewarded. The masjid certification is much more than a mere checklist of accommodations. To those special needs families, finding a wudu (ablution) station made for someone in a wheelchair or a special needs Eid prayer at a mosque, showed, in time, that the masjid was made for them too.
The presence of Muhsen is like no other. Muhsen is the only one of its kind to welcome all spectrums of disabilities and is willing to accommodate each individual’s needs as requested. From sign language interpreters, to subtitles, and even braille Qurans, Muhsen works to fulfill the over 80 communities across the country who have reached out from the organization’s survey.
“It’s very custom. It’s not one size fits all. It’s about what the community wants. And that’s what we’ve been providing,” J. Tahir said.
Muhsen provides child care programs, support groups, currently eight weekend schools, masjid accommodations, and more.
Muhsen not only focuses on physical disabilities, but also ones that appear hidden to community members. Stigma of physical disabilities is just as real as the stigma of mental disabilities or mental illnesses. Recognizing this, Muhsen spearheaded a new branch called SEEMA, Support Embrace Empower Mental Advocacy, solely to address those invisible illnesses and invisible disabilities.
The commendable work by Mushen, Tahir and Mohsinuddin has only ever been a sincere effort to please God and revive the prophetic tradition of making all individuals, specifically special needs, inclusive to the community, leaving no Muslim behind.
This article was originally published on The Chicago Monitor:http://chicagomonitor.com/2017/11/unmosque-ing-stigma-behind-disabilities-muslim-community/
Accessibility, acceptance, and education: being Muslim with disability
Dr. Najah Zaaeed, Syracuse University
We live in a world in which people are increasingly facing various challenges, many of which affect their well-being and lifestyles. Unfortunately, Muslims with disabilities are sometimes faced with barriers within their own Muslim communities. Recently, the Muslim Social Research Network launched a global study to understand the needs of Muslims with disabilities in the U.S., UK and Canada. The findings will be used to educate Muslim organizations about the challenges their community members with disabilities endure and provide recommendations on how to improve services, communication, and inclusion.
Imagine being limited to going outdoors or interacting with others because you have a disability or impairment. Imagine being unable to obtain general education because the school or organization does not have the resources or staff needed to teach individuals with disabilities and impairments. Imagine wanting to learn about your faith, including how to pray and how to recite words from the verses of the Qurʾān Al Kareem, yet there is no one to teach you because there is a lack of people willing to educate Muslims with disabilities and impairments. Imagine going to the masjid, only to be directed to pray in an isolated area or shoe room, not in congregation, because the facility does not provide ease of accessibility for individuals with disabilities who have medical equipment or pets to aid them. Sometimes the challenges for Muslims with disabilities and impairments are not due to structure, but due to a simple lack of awareness from other patrons and board members. We live in a world that is filled with imagination, but we don’t realize some of those thoughts may actually take place in our own communities.
A place of worship is generally thought of as being a safe, kind, and like welcome-home to anyone, including individuals with disabilities or impairments. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In fact, Muslims with disabilities and impairments, as well as their caregivers, tend to face challenges when attempting to participate in regular congregational prayers, Islamic educational programs, holiday/ special events, or general visitations to the masjid. Their struggles also extend to gaining access, participating with or obtaining resources from other Islamic organizations and centers. Granted, the world is not perfect, and individuals with disabilities or impairments may face barriers at even non-religious facilities; as faith-based organizations missions, however, typically connect religion with improvement of society, it has become ever more important to understand impaired or disabled Muslims’ concerns and challenges within Muslim organizations.
Like many Muslims, regardless of disability, Heather Albright would visit the masjid with the hope of learning about Islam, engaging with others, and performing her obligatory prayers in congregation. Instead, she oft times found her experience to be stressful, as she was bombarded with “off the wall” questions about her blindness and her ability to learn and be independent. Similarly, Misty Bradly, a single mother who is also blind, found that many underestimated her abilities because of her inability to see.
“People didn’t realize that blind people were capable of doing things on their own,” Misty explains. Although masjid patrons are friendly, they often make Muslims with disabilities and their caregivers feel ignored, as though they don’t belong, or as though they cannot move without assistance. It is important to note that this is not the case in all masjids, as some actually promote inclusion and expect engagement of Muslims with disabilities in activities. Nonetheless, these experiences combined with the lack of resources to create, support, and sustain the inclusion of Muslims with disabilities are relevant and should be addressed.
According to Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, who cares for his aging mother losing her sight because of glaucoma, “going to pray at a masjid is hard particularly when they’re not user friendly. I don’t think we have the resources; not because they’re unavailable to us but because we don’t place enough value in it.”
Misty’s challenges associated with Islamic organizations and her disability affect how she is able to engage in her daughter’s education. Islamic school teachers failed to adhere to her request of alternative communication methods; her request to communicate and keep her informed through e-mail, so that she could use her JAWS for windows software which enables screen reading the information to her, was ignored. This was troublesome as Misty was invested in her daughter’s education, but found herself missing special events due to a lack of communication.
Muslims with disabilities are not the only one to bear the stress of the barriers they endure in their Muslim communities. Caregivers of Muslims with disabilities have witnessed similar obstacles. Nicole Epps has realized her Muslims community lacks the resources needed to provide her five year old daughter Sarah, who has spastic cerebral palsy, an Islamic education. Sarah does not attend any type of Islamic school; this is not by choice, but rather because many Islamic schools, including weekend programs in North Carolina, do not accommodate students with disabilities or special needs. Nicole is not alone; Chess Conners has four children with some type of disability. Her oldest has autism while another has a physical disability affecting her legs. Like Nicole, Chess found that the Islamic schools are not equipped to educate children with special needs.
While a lack of special education teachers prevent Muslims with disabilities from learning about Islam in traditional settings, it is still possible for many to participate in activities and engage in programs offered to everyone at the masjid. Unfortunately, many Islamic centers are not disability friendly due to infrastructure, a lack of resources, such as visuals for individuals that may be hard of hearing or visually impaired, or the simple lack of awareness on how to treat and accommodate people with disabilities from an Islamic perspective. Addressing this last concern would prevent misunderstandings regarding the permissibility of someone with special medical shoes, equipment, or pets entering the masjid.
Mohammad Yousef is very familiar with the treatment of Muslims with disabilities by fellow Muslims and with accessibility barriers in Islamic centers and masjids. Although Mohammad is a well-educated engineer and founder of the organization, EquallyAble, he still finds himself having to defend the use of his medical shoes and leg brace in the prayer area. Mohammed’s organization aims to create awareness and advocate on behalf of Muslims with disabilities. Similarly, Chess feels accessibility, especially in Islamic centers or masjids that have multiple levels, can create barriers for people wishing to attend yet can’t due to a physical disability.
I “never really felt accepted in the community, because of how my children are,” explains Chess, who has felt a difference in the treatment of her and her children by others in her Muslim community. Chess feels that community members can sometimes make parents feel as though their child has a disease, rather than a disability. She remembers how someone found out about her second child’s incident and quickly informed others at the masjid. Chess believes education about disability is key, because people don’t realize the emotions individuals with disabilities may experience, especially if they have negative interactions with others. Chess wants parents to understand that “your child isn’t going to catch autism by being around my daughter.” Chess is not alone; Nicole shares, “kids don’t understand,” and parents do not help their children comprehend that people with disabilities may not be that different and may want to play and participate in activities just like any other child. Children with disabilities should “feel included, that it’s a disability but not a handicap.” Other children, such as Misty’s, are taunted by their fellow peers because of the parent’s disability. Sometimes Misty’s daughter is told “your mom can’t do that,” leaving her own child to wonder what her mother is capable of doing on her own. Misty now finds herself reminding her daughter that she is independent and able to care for herself.
All individuals interviewed stressed the importance of breaking down the stereotypes surrounding disabilities, specifically Muslims with disabilities. In addition to ease of access, many wish for improved Islamic education and resources for individuals with disabilities.
Learning about Islam
While some caregivers, such as Nicole and Chess, opted to teach their children about Islam at home, others continue to visit the masjid because they still want to feel as though they are a part of the community and learn something about Islam. Heather wanted to learn versus of the Qurʾān, yet cannot read it; instead of doing nothing, she decided to search for the Qurʾān in braille and was eventually able to get a copy.
Learning how to read the Qurʾān in braille presents its own challenges. Although a Qurʾān in braille is available, it is important to understand that even Islamic texts in braille require one to be educated on how to read it, explains Norma Hashim of the International Union of Braille Quran Services. The IBQS is comprised of 13 organizations in thirteen countries with hopes to grow. Braille phonetic is based on sounds and most braille Qurʾāns found in places such as Saudi Arabia have words that are shortened, which non-Arab speakers would most likely not understand or even pronounce correctly. The braille Qurʾān offered by the Malaysian Braille Association, whom Norma is also associated with, offers the longer braille version of the Qurʾān, which can be understood.
As technology and research advance, the opportunity for Muslims with disabilities to address their needs increases. Many Muslims with disabilities have used their impairment as a resiliency, developing organizations to create awareness and solutions. Although some may look for organizations to advocate on their behalf, “in general you need to be your own advocate and talk to the Imams and people and explain to them why this is different,” says Mohammad Yousef, of EquallyAble. Rabia Khedr, executive director of CAM-D (Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities), is blind and knows all too well the stigmatism that is associated with impairments. Amazingly, Rabia and her fellow peers at CAM-D have come a long way to establish their organization, which started off as a resource and advocacy center. They will soon be launching a project called Deen. Interestingly, CAM-D faced many challenges from Islamic organizations during their initial years of establishment. According to Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, who is also a board member of a masjid in central New York, “I find the challenge is getting Muslims to be sympathetic!” The internal struggles and recognition and leadership within Islamic organizations hinder their ability to address their Muslim community’s needs. This is one of the reasons CAM-D board members decided to be a stand-alone organization. In part, doing so allowed them to serve a greater community, advocate on behalf of individuals with disabilities, and make recommendations that are built on the needs of Muslims with disabilities, regardless of an Islamic organization’s affiliation.
While many of the parents interviewed for this article stated they would like to see disability awareness programs conducted by Islamic organizations for their community members, individuals such as Misty also express the concern of basic accessibility challenges at masjids and Islamic events. Misty shares, “a lot is culture, while we have to respect, and they need to learn more about disability and capabilities of disabled.” While Yusuf Abdul-Qadar shares similar agreement he reiterates, “the Muslim community isn’t competent enough to care about these issues, unfortunately. This is from a board member!”
Refreshingly, people like Mohammad, Rabia, and Heather are contributing to the slow, but effective changes ensuring their concerns, as well as the concerns of other Muslims with disabilities are heard and their needs are being met. Rabia says the need for awareness and advocacy is “huge and the resources are small.” Rabia and Mohammad both mention the importance of pro-activeness from Muslims with disabilities, in their communities. Mohammad goes further to mention the importance for Imams and Muslims organization board and community members to take the time to “get to know someone with a disability and understand what happens in their life and with their family members.”
The current reality is that Islamic centers across the US, UK and Canada can easily become overwhelmed with a plethora of community concerns and sometimes need to rely on information and training from third party organizations or advocates on issues such as addressing the concerns of individuals with special needs. The recent study on Muslims with disabilities is not the first research to address the needs of Muslims with disabilities, and it may not be the last as social concerns and needs are steadily changing. However, findings of the study by MSRN will be greatly beneficial to Muslims with disabilities, their caregivers, and Muslim communities and organizations overall.
This article was originaly published by Muslim Matters: https://muslimmatters.org/2014/03/04/living-as-a-muslim-with-disability/
Disability in Islam
By Saulat Pervez
The Treatment of Handicapped People in Islam
In our everyday lives, we often encounter handicapped people. Whether we stop to chat with them or not, many of us find ourselves thanking God for creating us free of disabilities while simultaneously uttering a prayer for them.
Interestingly enough though, whereas we may consider such people disadvantaged, there is very little evidence in the Quran or the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that Islam views them in a similar fashion. For instance, the Quran contains hardly any direct reference to disabled people except in the context of jihad: “Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home), except those who are disabled, and those who strive hard and fight in the Cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives.” (4:95)
In another place, when God rebukes the Prophet, pbuh, in Surah Abasa (Ch. 80) on account of his behavior toward Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum, He does not dwell on the latter’s disability except to refer to him as the “blind man.” In other words, the Prophet is not being admonished on his insensitivity towards a handicapped person, but rather on his negligence of someone who came to him to learn.
The Prophet’s behavior toward disabled people is an example par excellence for us. In addition to greeting Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum with respect and humility, the Prophet, pbuh, designated him as the Leader of Madinah many times in his own absence. As far as the Prophet was concerned, Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum’s blindness was not a hindrance in his ability to carry out his duties.
Similarly, the case of Julaybib, another companion of the Prophet, is instructive. He was thus known because of his diminutive figure. He was also described as being deformed or revolting in appearance. While many people in Madinah had made him an outcast, the Prophet, pbuh, instead approached a family to give their beautiful daughter as a bride for Julaybib. As may be expected, the parents were blinded by his apparent handicaps – yet their daughter surrendered herself to the will of the Prophet, pbuh.
These examples are important because they show that even though the Prophet, pbuh, was sensitive to their particular circumstances, he did not consider these to be things which should stand in their way of leading normal lives. Rather, he was intent upon focusing on their inner beauty and amorphous souls – just as he did with all of his companions.
Therefore, putting aside our own prejudices and assumptions, we must recognize that disability in and of itself is not necessarily a hindrance or disadvantage. No doubt, it causes the afflicted person far more difficulty than someone who is not in his/her position. This is all the more reason why we should make extra efforts to provide facilitation to our brothers and sisters by ensuring not only their physical comfort through appropriate measures but their mental and emotional ease as well. The latter can only be accomplished if we view them beyond their physical state, just as the Prophet, pbuh, did.
After all, God has promised us that our lives are a test for us. Degrees and forms of our trials vary from person to person, even family to family. However, it is up to us to have fortitude, accept our fate, and then actively work to make the best out of them. Indeed, God has promised us that “with every hardship there is relief,” (94:5) and that “no person shall have a burden laid on him greater than he can bear” (2:286).
In general, handicapped people face the challenge of normalizing their lives with patience, strength and courage. Many of them accomplish this with such flair that they no longer see themselves as “different.” May God facilitate them in their adversity and enable others of us to become a supportive force for them.
This article was originally published on Why Islam?: https://www.whyislam.org/social-issues/disability-in-islam/
Other Articles and Resources:
Mental Health: Through The Lens of Muslim Women: http://methodandmemory.leadr.msu.edu/student-projects/mental-health-muslim/
Have the Muslims failed with Intellectual Disabilities?: https://www.islam21c.com/islamic-thought/have-the-muslims-failed-with-intellectual-disabilities/?fbclid=IwAR2A1s81RT_2N6YiEjV25YHIF4sPd5F07A9jO2C2rJiuZvlZBhlvpDQmaBE
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