Written by Sultan Hajiyev, UNDP Libya Country Director. 

Those who have grown up in the republics of the Soviet Union remember when people with disabilities did not exist. The Soviet Union was special, as one would hardly ever see a person in a wheelchair, or someone visually impaired. You simply could not see people with special needs in the streets. The existence of psychiatric hospitals got widespread notoriety when one such institution put a huge slogan: ‘Lenin is with us!’ on its external wall, to meet communist propaganda standards. History books are silent about the destiny of the hospital director, but those familiar with Soviet realities and an entity called ‘KGB’ can easily imagine him spending a bit of time behind some other walls…

Back to the main topic, there were no people with disabilities in USSR! Strange, right? Difficult to believe? Well, do not believe, and you will be right. There always have been a lot of people with special needs. However, they lived in their own parallel world, almost entirely invisible to ‘normal people’, in ‘normal society’. They have been ‘naturally incarcerated’ because society has chosen not to accept their existence. There has been almost no infrastructure for them to set foot outside their apartments and homes. From educational institutions, to public transportation systems, to cinemas and hospitals (with very few exceptions), the world of ‘normals’ was a fortress they never dared to storm. One of the many revelations we former Soviets then made, following the fall of the Iron Curtain when traveling to the West was that people with special needs can be very active and very productive members of society. Their best fate turned out not to be the subject of some condescending pity and occasional charity, but true respect for those who have found their path in life and stand tall despite some extra difficulties.

Why I am writing about it? Few weeks back, during my discussion with H.E. Dr. Almahdi, Minister of Labor and Capacity Building, and H.E. Minister Qansu of Local Governance we agreed to join efforts to see how we can support respective Ministries in assisting Libyans living with disabilities. We are currently preparing several initiatives, planning to start small and hope to get the support of several key stakeholders building on the success of our initial interventions. We have been truly inspired by the passionate partnership we are enjoying so far from our Government counterparts, and our few other partners, including CSOs.

I can almost hear: ‘Oh, come on! Are you kidding?! With all the issues Libya is now facing, you are talking about people with disabilities?!’. No, I am not kidding. And yes, I am painfully aware of the platitude of other issues of paramount importance and urgency Libya is facing. Even despite tragic events of the last weeks and innocent lives claimed by brutal violence, I do believe that while trying to support Libya in managing some most sensitive challenges, we cannot exclude those particularly vulnerable, those who suffer double, even triple that of what ordinary Libyans are living through every single day. I consider this to be one of the core principles of the SDGs and the strength and power of the SDGs is that they represent the values and objectives ordinary people care about. I am convinced it is the right thing to do – not just for those we are focusing our attention on, but for the greater good of society in general.

UNDP Libya is committed to work supporting people with special needs in Libya, including making accessible our office premises in Tripoli. A drop in the ocean? Perhaps even less than that. But is not it what the World Ocean consists of?

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