EDITOR’S NOTE: The names of disability-rights activists have been changed in this article to protect their identities.
The day the Taliban seized control of Kabul, they lobbed a grenade into A’s yard, and he promptly left home to seek refuge. A lower-limb amputee and prominent disability rights activist, he’s at risk because of his disability rights organization’s association with the United States.
“We have implemented a number of US grants and therefore…they think that me and my people are on a spy mission for the Americans,” A wrote in an e-mail to me.
As of Monday, the Taliban has shown up at A’s house three times. They also visited the office of the organization, where they asked security guards for A’s whereabouts. A is moving from house to house to evade capture. At least 50 disability rights activists like A and their families are imperiled, says Isabel Hodge, the executive director of the United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD). In 2017, USICD and the Afghanistan embassy in Washington, D.C., held a disability rights conference at Georgetown University; by virtue of their association with the United States, the lives of these grantees and program partners are now in danger.
For many years, these disability rights activists have been providing vital services to Afghans with disabilities through organizations involved with rehabilitation services, vocational training, leadership training, and microfinancing, among other services. For example, one organization has been working to make school bathrooms accessible to wheelchair users, with the support of the United States. Others have focused on programs as diverse as trauma care services for land mine victims and carpet-weaving vocational training. With the fall of the Ashraf Ghani–led government, the provision of these services is almost certain to become more difficult.
According to the Asia Foundation, Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of disability per capita in the world, with nearly 80 percent of Afghan adults disabled, mostly because of more than 40 years of war. Despite this staggering number, that disabled Afghans are largely left behind is the result of a lack of accessible infrastructure and systemic ableism. This problem especially impacts women and girls; according to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch, 80 percent of Afghan girls with disabilities aren’t enrolled in school. US intervention hasn’t helped address the issues; despite the fact that the US spent $145 billion on reconstruction efforts in Afghan cities and population centers, critics say that these efforts neglected the specific needs of disabled people.
The international community has also provided little to no help to Afghan disability rights activists, according to Hodge. “We had one gentleman who got approval from Canada, as he had all of his paperwork. He [is] an amputee…. He went to the airport in Kabul, wandered around for hours trying to find…the right place to go to…and he ended up in so much pain, he had to go back home.”
Such was also the case for M, another disability rights activist with a physical disability, who tried three times to leave with his Canadian visa and documents but could not navigate the airport. He also requested support from the United States. “The Biden administration did not consider the rights of persons with disabilities in their evacuation process from the Kabul airport,” he told me.
Hodge, who has been in touch with the State Department, is concerned that disability rights activists were not prioritized among other Afghans. “But in my opinion, they should [have been] because they really are at risk, and if you think of the stigma and discrimination…the Taliban wouldn’t think twice about killing someone with a disability.”
None of the approximately 50 disability rights activists that she had identified to the State Department has been evacuated, according to Hodge.
She and M are also concerned that disabled victims of war will lose their monthly stipend provided by the administration under former President Ghani, which helps them pay for food and other necessities, and that rehabilitation centers will shut down, withdrawing critical medical support for Afghans with disabilities. Small businesses owned by people with disabilities are also shutting down, making them extra vulnerable in an economy already in free fall.
Hodge elaborated on the precarious position of activists who support Afghanistan’s many disabled orphans: “There’s one worker from one of the schools that’s taking donations, and she’s delivering hot meals to some of the families that have been involved in this nonprofit for children with disabilities that are orphans, and she’s doing that at a great risk to her own life.”
In the past, Afghans with disabilities have been recruited by the Taliban to become suicide bombers. According to his autopsies of the remains of bombers in Kabul between 2004 and 2007, Dr. Yusef Yadgari, a senior assistant professor at Kabul Medical University, found that more than 80 percent of them were disabled or chronically ill.
“They are probably resentful because in Afghan society they are outcasts,” Yadgari told NPR. “They hold a grudge because many of them can’t get a job. So, to make money for their families, they agree to become suicide bombers.”
A has a plea for the United States: “Many people with disabilities who implemented the US projects are in trouble and I hope that the US government [will] pay attention because they will become more vulnerable if they are not assisted.”