It was Ramadan, but it felt different. More memorable, somehow, more special than previous years. I had just landed in San Francisco to speak at an international conference. I looked for a Muslim center in the downtown San Francisco area and was happy when I found one close by. I asked a colleague of mine to drop me off there later that evening.
I started to enter the Muslim center, but to my surprise, I was stopped and disallowed entry. Iâ€™d faced similar situations in the past, but this experience stands out from the rest because of the behavior of those present at the center. A voice yelled at me, shouting, â€œhey man, you canâ€™t enter the center with those shoes on!â€; a few others joined him in objecting to my entry inside the Muslim center.
Finally, someone brought over a chair for me to sit by the entrance. While others were busy preparing food the breaking of the fast, I pulled out my smartphone and began to read the Quran. While I was reading, a man came over, knelt down next to me, and began to untie my shoe. Shocked, I asked him what he was doing. He replied that someone had told him that I couldnâ€™t take my shoes off; he was trying to help me take them off so I could come inside. I explained to him that it wasnâ€™t that I couldnâ€™t take off the shoesâ€¦itâ€™s that I wouldnâ€™t be able to walk without them.
I am a polio survivor. When the disease attacked my body, it took with it my ability to walk. Today, I am not able to walk without the aide of leg braces and shoes.
I stayed in that chair near the entrance of the center for the most part of that night. From iftar â€“ the breaking of the fastâ€“to Magrib â€“the sunset prayer, to dinner, to Isha â€“ the evening prayer and to Taraweeh â€“ late evening prayer offered in Ramadan only, for over five hours, I sat there. Ramadan is a time of sharing, caring, and interacting, yet I sat there, rooted to my chair. Alienated. Separated from everyone around me. Nonexistent. One man, however, noticed. He consulted with his friend and halfway through the Taraweeh prayer, came with two plastic grocery bags, which he proceeded to wrap around my shoes so I could join the rows of prayer inside the center.
Sitting by the entrance that night, I started to contrast this experience with the other two experiences I had prior to coming to the Muslim center. Just before coming to San Francisco, I had had the privilege of meeting President Obama two days in a row. Though shaking hands with the President not only once, but twice, was a huge honor, what I cherished the most was the accessibility accommodations that were made for me, both at the White House and when the President came to our research center. On both occasions, President Obamaâ€™s staff went out of their way to make sure that my accessibility needs were taken care of, that I was comfortable at all times and that I was able to participate in the events as fully as everyone else.
Sitting in my chair at the corner of the center , I analyzed the situation. From their response, it was apparent that those present at the Muslim center had not ever came across an individual like me, and just did not know what to do. I was fine with that theory. I was not going to judge them on their understanding or lack of Islamic knowledge regarding people with disabilities and how they are to be dealt with it. I tried to accept this thought. However, I wondered how can people be so insensitive to the needs of others? How can they shut someone off so completely, without taking a minute to realize what they might be going through? Why couldnâ€™t they understand that there had to be some underlying reason that renders me, and every other person with a disability, in our situations. Why canâ€™t they understand the emotional damage that they cause, does serious harm to these individuals? Why donâ€™t they see that being shut out from the community because of a physical or mental difference hurts?
When will they realize that we are humans too? This mosque in San Francisco is not the only place in the country that lacks awareness when it comes to disability inclusion. As hurt as I was, I wanted to take the chance to educate those at this center to stop this from happening again. I decided to write to the President of the Muslim center to appraise him of what happened and to request that they schedule a disability awareness seminars or worship. Thatâ€™s all we can try to do, change one individual one community at a time.