The reaction of some people when they see a disabled person in their daily lives amounts to feeling pity, and many disabled prefer to stay at home not to get out of their houses, according to Tuğçe Akgün, a disabled activist.
“As the Turkish nation we are very helpful, very merciful. But sometimes we do it in an obnoxious way,” she said. “We think we can pity someone else. A disabled person is seen as a pitiful person in our society. In their eyes I cannot work, I cannot have fun I cannot have a career. When I laugh in a coffee shop I hear others ‘how nice she is laughing despite…’ I know a lot of handicapped friends who do not go out because they resent the pitying looks of others.”
Tell us your story.I had a car accident in 2011. I was close to home so I was not wearing a seatbelt. I lost control of the car and crashed to the sea. When I woke up 11 days later after intensive care, I was not aware that my spinal cord was broken. I was barely breathing due to problems in my lungs.
After my lungs recovered, I was operated for my spinal cord. Even at that time, I was thinking I will recover and walk again. But after the surgery, the doctor told me to get myself a bed, telling me I will no longer be able to walk. We went home, and even then, we had not procured a wheelchair. When I started the physical therapy, it was like a slap on my face. The most important problem for paraplegia is not being unable to walk but it is the loss of control of your toilet ability. That negatively affects your life quality in terms of self-care.
Looking around the hospital and seeing others like me, I realized that I will not be able to walk again. So started the period of acceptance and I started to observe how others live with the wheelchair.
Afterwards, my mother encouraged me to continue to my life, to go out, to work. In the early days when I went out, I resented the way people looked at me. The society is not used to people in wheelchairs or to people with physical inabilities. They choose to feel pity or else they look at you and tell themselves, “Thank God we are not like that.” So at the beginning I was more hesitant, but thanks to the encouragement of my family, I realized I should not turn inward. I started to work. I moved to Bodrum and worked in the municipality and through my attitude I also started to give the message to the people that there is no difference between us.
And then at one stage you became involved with sports.
I used to follow disabled athletes from the social media. One of them was also following me and one day asked me if I would be tempted by athletics. There were qualifiers. Actually I was never a sports person. My mother used to force me to walk by the seaside in İzmir. I used to say, “I don’t like to walk.” It seems it is important what type of message you send to the universe. At any rate, I came to Istanbul and started an intensive camp period. Normally it would have been impossible for me to start sports after 25 years of age and become a national athlete. But I adapted very quickly, and in 2017 I became second in 100 meters and first in 200 meters in the championships in Antalya. On the relay race, we got fourth place in the 2017 world championship in London. Something bad had happened to me, but that bad thing had opened different doors in front of me. Later, I was lured by archery. But due to some problems I had to spent time in the hospital so I had to postpone my plans.
How does it feel to be a disabled person in Turkey?
As a Turkish nation, we are very helpful, very merciful. But we do it in an unconscious way. It might sound rude, but sometimes we do it in an obnoxious way. We think we can pity someone else. A disabled person is seen as a pitiful person in our society. In their eyes, I cannot work, I cannot have fun, I cannot have a career. When I laugh in a coffee shop, I hear others: “How nice she is laughing despite….” In their eyes, it is a miracle that a disabled person can socialize. I know a lot of handicapped friends who do not go out because they resent the pitying looks of others.
There is also this attitude: “If you can’t move around, why are you here?” It is difficult to be a kid, a woman and a disabled person in Turkey. Sometimes my female identity is ignored because I am disabled. I have a boyfriend, and he is appreciated for going out with me. Why should he be appreciated specifically for going out with me?
It seems people with disabilities are forced to stay inside due to the society’s attitude.
Unless you have a strong psychology, it is different to exist outside. Do I have disabilities that block certain things? Yes, but in fact, if there were not physical hurdles, outside I could be your equal and do things just as you do.
I assume you come across many physical obstacles outside.
It’s like you come outside of your house and you face a five meter wall. The moment I go out I come across millions of these five-meter walls. I come across them even in official buildings. Yet it is my right as a citizen to enter an official building and get a public service. I cannot even get a proper medical exam because certain equipment is not fit for the disabled.
We then become 3 million disabled the society does not see. Ramps have to be done according to certain standards; they should be constructed with a 7 percent angle. I feel happy if I see one with a 45 percent angle. Workplaces are constructing them without any standards in order to get a license from the municipality, but they are not efficient at all. We call on the municipalities to not issue licenses until proper measures are taken for the disabled people. The only places disabled people go are shopping malls.
Believe me, providing social rights are more important than direct financial support. There is no use in the cash support given by the state. How can an individual live with 2,000 lira given every three months? If we can be provided with the right approach in terms of education, social and health conditions we can become productive individuals. Giving salaries to disabled people makes
them prisoner of home and television screen. I have some friends with disabilities who were engineers, who had careers previously. But workplaces are not suitable for the disabled people; there are not toilets to cater for the disabled people, for instance. We become individuals who are not producing but only consuming.
The attitude of the families must be also problematic.
Unfortunately, families get their children under a bell glass for the sake of protecting them. This is a phenomenon we see more among those who are disabled from birth. Families don’t even send them to schools fearing their children can be made fun of. They raise them by themselves on their own.
In my case, my mother raised me as a strong person. She trusted in me more than I did in
myself. Her love for me pushed me to struggle and overcome obstacles.
What are your future projects?
I’d like to continue sports professionally. In addition, I will continue to work as an activist. I am personally working in our association on a project for sexual rehabilitation for the disabled. We are at the stage of making surveys among the disabled to understand the problems, to take stock of where we are and then we want to prepare a project to get EU funding.
Tuğçe Akgün was born in 1990 in İzmir. She attended school in the Aegean coastal city and then enrolled in Muğla University in Menteşe from which she graduated with a degree in tourism management. She had just returned to İzmir after graduation when a car accident left her with paraplegia.
After treatment, she moved further down south to the holiday resort town of Bodrum and worked for four years in the city’s municipality.
She has become a national athlete and came first in 200-meter dash and second in 100-meter dash in the Turkey championships in Antalya. With the Turkish relay, she placed fourth in the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships.
She is currently employed with the Culture Ministry but continues to also work as an activist to raise awareness about spinal cord injury.
Hurriyet Daily News