Campaigners say that Turkey’s recent decision to recognise people with achondroplasia (ACH) – the most common type of dwarfism – as disabled may signal significant progress in the country’s attitude to disability.
Since 2014, Turkey has introduced anti-discrimination legislation including incentives to workplaces employing disabled citizens, such as free loans, tax reduction and subsidies. Although Turkish labour law already requires employers to hire a certain number of disabled workers, implementation is patchy and not all conditions are included.
In February this year, ACH was finally categorised as a disability. This means that those affected are deemed to be 40 per cent disabled and can access benefits including early retirement, reduced taxes and free medicine and insurance.
Umut Kösemen, the man who spearheaded the efforts to recognize ACH as a disability, detailed his ten-year campaign.
“I filed suits, I made petitions and launched complaints to all relevant government branches. I emailed the ministries, and members of the parliament. I started campaigns on social media and appeared in various TV programmes.
“It took me a long time to get any results, but I finally succeeded,” he said, adding, “People with achondroplasia will now officially have the status of disabled persons and the benefits they will be entitled to should make their lives a little bit easier.”
Kösemen explained that access to specialized health care was particularly important for people with ACH as they often struggle with various health problems related to this condition.
According to some medical studies, the life expectancy of individuals with ACH is 55 years, as they are prone to heart disease.
“People like us cannot live very long. I am surprised that I’ve reached this age,” Kösemen said. “When I was born, my mother was told that I would not live longer than a year, but she is a fighter and she did not give up on me. I am still alive thanks to her.”
“I had problems with my spine and had to undergo many surgeries,” he continued. “People with my condition get deformed joints quite early and our ability to move decreases with time,” he explained. “Everyday obstacles create many problems for us too. Public transport, toilets, even ATMs are designed for taller people.”
There are around 250,000 people in Turkey with ACH, but Süleyman Akbulut, head of the Social Rights and Studies Association, said that the repercussions could be much wider.
“In the past, disability was considered a medical problem, but it is now treated as a social issue,” he said. “People with disabilities are finally being recognised as people whose human rights must be respected.”
That was the experience of Aynur Yıldırım, 39, who works at the centre for the disabled in Istanbul.
“When I went to see a doctor in 2003 to be examined, he told me that I was ‘in perfect health… there is nothing wrong with you, you could even do weightlifting,’ he said. I had to undergo many other examinations before I finally proved to the ministry of health that I was 40 per cent disabled,” Yıldırım recalled.
“Doctors did not want to admit that we were disabled. On the other hand, employers did not want to hire us due to our physical appearance. Many of my friends had the same problem,” she added.
Kösemen’s working life was always fraught with difficulty too, despite being well-educated with a university degree. He has now been able to take early retirement, thanks to the new regulations.
“No matter how good your credentials are, your physical appearance matters more, especially when you go to a job interview,” he said. “Getting hired when you have ACH is not easy.”
Kösemen, who recalls being taunted with cries of “dwarf” at school, said that recognizing ACH as a disability was a first step to wider change. More work was needed making sure that public services were more accessible, for instance. For Kösemen, who is 137 cm high, even the counters in government offices and the banks are too high.
And people needed to recognise prejudice and work to combat it, he continued, adding, “We face discrimination in the society on a daily basis and it is difficult to for others to understand that.”