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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Disabled Muslims Lobby for Better Access to Mosques

By Ayesha Akram
Religion News Service
August 30 - Every Friday afternoon, Betty Hasan-Amin asks her caretaker to help her tie a brightly patterned scarf around her head, making sure no strands of hair escape. In the next room, her husband finishes his ablution, the ritual washing Muslims conduct before praying.

At 12:45, the couple departs for the congregational prayers held at their neighborhood mosque in Atlanta. Though the mosque is only about 25 minutes from her home in Stone Mountain, Amin usually leaves more than an hour before the prayers begin.
"It takes me much longer than an average person to get prepared," said Amin, 57, who became a quadriplegic after a spinal cord accident in 1966. She has only limited mobility in her arms and fingers. "This is why I always try and leave extra time for myself."

Drawn in by Elijah Muhammad's teachings, Amin embraced Islam as a college junior in 1972, but it didn't take long for her to realize that the mosque she was beginning to think of as a second home had almost no access for people like her.

"I had to make everyone aware of the needs of the disabled," said Amin, who pushes mosques to increase access for those with handicaps. "And it was from awareness that change came."

The landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act requires new public facilities -- including houses of worship -- to be handicapped-accessible.

But because many mosques are small, housed in older buildings and rarely built from the ground up, few are fully accessible for the disabled.

Sister Aisha al-Adawiya, president of the advocacy group Women in Islam, said most mosques in New York ignore the disabled.

"There is currently almost no outreach or attempts to reach the disabled community," she said. "It's discrimination, and whether it is out of ignorance or a lack of concern, we still need to address it."

A 2000 report by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate counted more than 1,200 U.S. mosques and about 6 million American Muslims. There are no numbers on the disabled population being served by mosques.

Imam Sheikh Omar of the Islamic Cultural Center of Manhattan says that's not surprising. "Disabled Muslims tend to ignore the mosques," he said. "We hardly ever see them at our prayers."

Amin, who successfully lobbied her mosque to include wheelchair ramps and a ground-floor prayer room, says the reluctance of Muslims with handicaps to attend congregational prayers is easy to understand.

"The lack of accessibility discourages many," she said. "If you don't have a way for Muslims with disabilities to get in, then how will you see them?"

Generally speaking, disabled people are less likely to attend religious services than people without disabilities -- 47 percent versus 65 percent respectively -- according to a 2000 survey by the National Organization on Disability.

But, advocates say, that's not an indication of religious faith. More than eight out of 10 people with disabilities consider their faith to be important to them, with approximately two-thirds calling it very important.

Some community leaders say Muslims need to start taking pointers from their history.

The Prophet Muhammad, the messenger of Islam, took special care to ensure that the disabled were able to come to prayers, says Haris Tarin, director of community development at the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

"When the prophet found out that one of his followers was blind, he made another member of the congregation responsible for bringing the blind man to prayers," he said.

Lorraine Thal, program officer for the religion and disability program at the National Organization on Disability, said her organization has tried to reach out to mosques with little success. Of the more than 2,200 congregations affiliated with her office, not one is a mosque.

"Mosques are more isolated than other places of worship and it is very difficult to bring about changes in the Muslim community," she said.

Altaf Ali, executive director of the South Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said one of the main problems with mosques is inadequate staffing. The Mosque Project, a multistate study supervised by professor Ihsan Bagby of the University of Kentucky, found that 55 percent of U.S. mosques have no paid staff, and only 10 percent have more than two paid staff members.

"Having salaried staff members means that there is someone on the premises who is working to satisfy the needs of the community," he said. "As our community grows, mosques need to start thinking about hiring full-time workers."

Ali says people should also remember that the average age of Muslims in this country is in the 30s. "As our community ages, issues of access to the disabled and the aged will automatically come to the forefront."

What's more, the community itself is still in its infancy, leaders say.

About one-third of all mosques were established as recently as the 1990s, according to Bagby's study.

"Though Islam has existed in this country for many years, it was less than 40 years ago that Muslims began coming here in huge numbers," said Amir Hussain, a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "Only recently have mosques been forced to grapple with access to women and the disabled."

Back at her mosque, Amin steers her motorized wheelchair up a ramp to the entrance door and parks herself near the prayer room. It's better than the old days, when Muslim men carried her chair up and down the steps. She has convinced a Muslim school in Winston-Salem, N.C., to install a motorized lift and convinced her own mosque to include handicapped parking.

"I made my efforts and Allah blessed them, which is why I started to get results," says Amin. "But we still have much work to do.

"Our religion preaches an ideology of inclusiveness, and we should respect and honor that. As good Muslims, we should turn our mosques into models for other places of worship to look at, and not fall behind the rest."

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