“If I lose my mobile phone, it will be like losing my sight again.” This is the bitter truth that only those who have been robbed part of their soul can truly understand, like Mamdouh Dibo (55 years old), who lost his eyesight.
The outbreak of the war in Syria over a decade ago has been detrimental for Mamdouh and many other disabled people. Rushed and miscalculated services and legislations have made it difficult to pave the long-awaited path to digital transformation.
Mamdouh, who is an Arabic teacher, found in technology a respite. It allowed him to do tasks he would not have been able to do otherwise. He finds the Internet and modern technology fairly accessible. In a conversation with SMEX, Mamdouh said: “I have a smartphone and a computer with enhanced accessibility options for my case. I can use voice commands and the screen reader to perform my work and communicate with others.”
However, while Mamdouh benefited from technology, to many others, using it was a curse. Amer, who is in his sixties and has visual impairment, says that using modern technology is difficult for those his age, as it requires special features for blind people. With a deep sigh, he added: “I really don’t know how to use these technologies. When I asked for help at the Takamol center, they were unable to do anything. They just told me: ‘That’s how the application works!’”
‘Way-in’ is an application developed by Syrian company Takamol and adopted by the government to notify families about the availability of subsidized products and when to receive them. With sorrow in his voice, Amer described this service as being a form of “humiliation.” Every day, he has to ask his neighbor Abou Elias to check for any new notifications. When asked if the application can be connected to the screen reader, he said derisively: “This function is not supported by the app. No one considered our needs when they developed it. I’ve thought of a dozen solutions to the problem, I even shared them with a director at the company two years ago, and he promised me to address the issue. To this day, however, nobody has taken any steps. It makes me realize that our voices will never be heard, no matter how loud we shout.”
In the same context, Mamdouh told SMEX that “using the Way-in app is not seamless for blind people, and the screen reader requires modern and high-spec mobile phones.” He said that he is trying to “help people wishing to use the app, whether by entering data or knowing when each person can receive their supplies.”
Hundreds of thousands of blind and deaf people are unable to access subsidized products and other essential services because the apps do not accommodate their needs. Even if people want to purchase new mobile phones that support specialized apps, the high customs fees pose yet another obstacle.
Mobile phones are helpful… if you can afford one
When, in the second half of 2021, the Syrian Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (SYTRA) imposed paying customs fees at the official US dollar exchange rate, mobile phones became a luxury for the few. Still, what people regard as dispensable luxuries could be an essential need for others.
J.L. (47 years old), who is a blind Syrian national, said: “I need a high-end phone that supports assistive apps compatible with my condition. When I activated a new Samsung phone I had just bought, I received a message instructing me to pay the customs fees. I was shocked to learn that the activation fee amounts to 80% of the phone’s price!”
Wassim (42 years old), an Arabic teacher, lost his left leg when his house was hit by a mortar shell in early 2012. He said: “After much difficulty, I managed to obtain a disability ID from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, which offers several benefits such as exemptions from fees, transport fares, financial stamps, and the like. But in reality, none of these benefits are actually available.”
Wassim adds mockingly: “With the help of some loved ones, I bought a phone for nearly USD 320. When I activated it, I received a message stating that I need to pay a customs fee of USD 280, which is more than 85% of the phone’s value!” When Wassim went to file a complaint and submit his disability ID, he was treated with disrespect: “I was forced out of the service center on my wheelchair. They told me the disability ID does not exempt me from the fee and that I must pay it in full or the phone won’t work.”
Government laws and decisions are not the only problem, as some institutions and associations mistreat people with disabilities. Many think that the food parcel, “which barely lasts a few days,” is more important than providing medical devices and technical aid. Umm Ali, a literary writer in her fifties, is outraged by the indifference of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor and non-governmental organizations towards providing hearing aids or covering part of their high cost.
She also expressed her frustration, stating that she does not need a food parcel, but rather “batteries to operate [her] outdated hearing aid.” Umm Ali pleaded: “I need the Ministry of Interior and the traffic police to install special traffic signs that help us cross the street without terror. We should not be asking for such basic services that exist everywhere else around the world.”
Adel Mahmoud (57 years old), who is deaf, works at a gas station in Homs for less than $30 per month. He spends most of his income on trying to secure the needs of his five children and cannot afford a battery for his hearing aid. In his reply to our survey, he said that non-profit associations “no longer import the devices we need, although the number of disabled people is increasing.”
“Instead, they toss at us a can of tomato paste and a bottle of olive oil every month. It is frustrating to find that the organizations entrusted with supporting disabled people do not even know what our most pressing needs are,” Mahmoud added.
Mounir, a director at an association working in this field in the countryside of Hama (north-eastern Syria), confirmed that low revenues and the lack of government support are the main challenges to providing advanced devices, such as smartphones, laptops, braille prints, hearing aids, and other items. He believes that “these requests are unrealistic” in a country stifled by sanctions and lacks foreign parts for such products.
Meanwhile, Ali Ekriem, Chairman of Eemaa Society for Educating the Deaf, said that there are no educational programs for the deaf, many of whom remain illiterate. This is a major obstacle to accessing the Internet and digital technology with ease. Most of them rely on video calls, which are much more expensive than voice calls or text messages. In this context, Ekriem asks: “Why not offer telecom packages or discounts for disabled people?”
Although digital devices have become essential tools in every society, and for everyday life, many disabled people in Syria remain excluded and marginalized. The World Health Organization estimates that disabled people now represent 27% of Syria’s population – a figure four times higher than the pre-war era.
Therefore, we must ensure their voices are heard, and their needs met, or else our societies will remain plagued by discrimation ad prejudice. Access to the internet and to the tools of our age are human rights, regardless of any human being’s physical capabilities.