Disability-based discrimination may seem like a problem of the past – most of us grew up in schools alongside special needs students, learning to be accepting of and empathetic towards them, in a society that places increasing importance on diversity. So the backwards beliefs about learning disabilities that still persist within our Muslim communities may shock you.

Imagine being a parent who has just learned that your child has been diagnosed with autism, and while trying to grapple with this, you are told by your relatives or community members that all this must be a “punishment from God” and that you should pray for forgiveness. This is the story that I have heard, in one form or another, from several families with special needs children, and it reveals the worst of the ignorance that exists in our community.

Many such stories are shared in the HAMDA: Helping All Muslims with Different Abilities group. This is a BC-based program started by Karima Hefnawi, and co-directed by Yasmin Ullah, looking to connect Muslim families with special needs children. By hearing from these families and the issues they face, they are hoping to work with masjids and Islamic organizations to increase awareness and foster inclusive and welcoming Muslim communities.

When I spoke to Karima and Yasmin about the program, they brought up two intertwining issues that our communities must address: the issue of stigma and the issue of inclusion.

I asked Karima why she started this project, and she recounted an incident she experienced a few years ago. She was on her way to pick up her younger son from Islamic school and met an old family friend. Beside her, her older son, who has autism, was squealing and doing other verbal stims, and the woman pulled her aside and said, “What’s wrong with your son?” To this rather blunt question, Karima responded cordially, explaining that her son is diagnosed with autism. The woman, not quite understanding what this meant, whispered, “You need to go to a sheikh and do ruqya for him.” The implication of her words – the belief that a child with autism was somehow possessed or sick – stuck with Karima.

“It’s bizarre how people can think that way, and how people are so ignorant about the most common neurodevelopmental disorder – 1 in 51 kids in BC has it. It is so prevalent in our community. For us to think that someone is broken just because they have autism is to believe that our Creator made a mistake in one of His creation, and we don’t believe that Allah makes mistakes. Every creation was made exactly the way it was for a reason.“

Not all beliefs held in our communities are this extreme – discrimination also comes in the subtle form of adults failing to understand disabilities and simply labeling kids with autism as misbehaved, or discouraging their own children from playing with them.

One belief that many of us may implicitly hold is the belief that people with autism or other disabilities have nothing to gain from faith or spiritual activities, because they simply would not understand it. To this, Karima referred to Surah ‘Abasa of the Quran:

“The Prophet frowned and turned away because there came to him the blind man, [interrupting]. But what would make you perceive, [O Muhammad], that perhaps he might be purified, or be reminded and the remembrance would benefit him?” (80: 1-4)

What this verse shows is that we do not decide who is able to access faith and who has the capacity to benefit from it. Yet so often, we do not value disabled individuals’ right to faith, and when we do so, we end up failing to include them in our religious spaces. Karima explained how her younger son goes to an Islamic school, but her older son was not allowed to go, since there was no special education resources set up for such students.

Yasmin mentioned how even Eid prayers, a time of celebration where the whole community is meant to come together, often make families with special needs children feel alienated and unwelcome. Whether it is the stares that they get when their children are being loud or not following prayers properly, or the lack of sensory accommodation in children’s activities, like bouncy castles and petting zoos, the end result is these families feeling like their children do not belong there. “When they are not included in any of the activities that the Muslim community have, what sort of message are we sending to these families?”

Where these two issues connect – when people with special needs are not present in public spaces within the Muslim community, they so easily become out of sight, out of mind, as Yasmin put it. “If we don’t allow for that interaction, how are we going to move forward as a society?” If Islamic school students are not able to grow up interacting with special needs peers, if these families are not present in our religious spaces and celebrations, how will we overcome the stigma that exists in our communities? The cycle of stigma and exclusion will simply continue.

Karima and Yasmin are looking to break this cycle. After their last focus group with several families with special needs children, they have identified three key priorities that they will be working on:

1) Making the masjid a welcoming space

Karima and Yasmin hope to organize masjid open houses for families with special needs children. They want to invite these families when the masjid is not too busy, so the children can be freer to experience the masjid in a supportive and accepting atmosphere, without any stares or rude comments. They are also advocating for masjids and Islamic centers to have sensory rooms, where individuals with sensory needs can decompress if they are over-stimulated. Beyond making the masjid more comfortable for those with special needs, this would increase awareness as well. Making these issues visible would get people talking about it and asking questions, which is the best way to combat ignorance.

2) Advocating for all members of the family

Yasmin, who has a brother with autism, is hoping to start up a Sibshop for siblings of kids with autism. These siblings face unique issues too – with all the parental focus on the child with special needs, other siblings can often feel ignored and neglected. Yasmin is hoping that through light-hearted interactive activities in the Sibshop, these kids will be able to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Similarly, the program operates parent support groups, where parents can connect and share information, resources, and thoughts. The team hopes to invite professionals to future support groups to speak with parents and offer their knowledge and expertise. 

3) Creating opportunities for socialization

Going out is often stressful for special needs families, but by creating a network of Muslim families who are all in the same boat, the team hopes to make it easier. “If your child is having a meltdown, you don’t have to worry about being judged, because the others will understand and support you. It is a way to empower families and build those social bonds, the brotherhood and sisterhood that we should already have for each other,” Karima explains.

“The idea of equality is so, so strong within the text of Islam – it is so prominent within our teachings, and yet we do not see that in practice.” These words from Yasmin really stuck with me. We are now starting to discuss the issue of equality in the Muslim community in terms of race and gender, and yet the topic of disability is one that I rarely hear talked about. Perhaps it is because it is not a hot political topic, or perhaps it is because the individuals affected by disability-based discrimination are often unable to speak up for themselves. Regardless, it is time that we start taking action to make our communities truly inclusive of everyone, and this initiative is a step in the right direction.

To get involved or learn more, contact karima@muslimfoodbank.com. The program is always looking for youth volunteers, support workers, and Muslim professionals such in SLP, OT, ABA, and other relevant occupations.