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How Turkish Women With Disabilities Are Entering the Workforce

Women with disabilities often encounter ‘double discrimination’ in Turkey – faced with unemployment or lower-grade jobs on account of their gender and their disability. Government work quotas are not solving the issue, so Turkey’s women are taking matters into their own hands.

Written by Aynur Tekin Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Gulay Salman (left) and her friend Sevgi Tongel at her market stall, selling crafts made at the Love Angels Arts Workshop. Photograph: Aynur Tekin

ISTANBUL, Turkey – “When you work with people with disabilities you see that if a person with a disability gets strong enough and can defend their rights, he or she does not need any financial or psychological help anymore.” That’s the view of Professor Resa Aydin of Istanbul University, a long-standing campaigner for disability rights in Turkey. Aydin believes that the government’s quota system, introduced in 2014 to ensure businesses employ a mandatory number of people with disabilities, is well-meaning but flawed – particularly when it comes to women.

About 5 million people with disabilities live in Turkey: 43 percent men; 57 percent women. Some 35 percent of men with disabilities are part of the country’s workforce compared to only 12.5 percent of women with disabilities. Furthermore, according to research by the Association of Women with Disabilities (Engelli Kadin Dernegi), those women who are able to get a job – despite the two-pronged prejudice against both women seeking employment and people with disabilities – are generally paid less than their male counterparts, disabled or otherwise.

Despite an increase in the number of women with disabilities going into further education in recent years, they are still not able to get jobs that match their level of education. Regardless of their skill set, they are often employed as secretaries or receptionists – a disparity the government’s quota system fails to address.

Professor Aydin has been working on a rights-based approach to disability for more than 20 years. As the head of Istanbul University’s Unit of Students with Disabilities, she says there is no gender discrimination of people with disabilities at her university, adding, “We do not see double discrimination in education. When education is completed and work life starts, we encounter double discrimination then. We see that men with disabilities are employed in preference to women with disabilities.”

In regards to the government’s quotas, Aydin says, “I do not think it is a system that functions well.” For such an initiative to be successful, training of employers, enforcement of environmental regulations and promotion of the rights of people with disabilities should also be undertaken. Only then, she argues, will people with disabilities – particularly women – be able to truly enjoy a lack of discrimination.

Instead, it has been left for those at the front line of this battle to attempt to give others the help they never received themselves.

Duygu Kayaman is an entrepreneur who has taken a crucial step in facilitating access to information for visually impaired people with her project Hayal Ortagim (Dream Partner). Kayaman lost her sight when she was two and a half years old, and has developed the project based on her own needs and experiences in academia and the world of employment. Visually impaired people throughout Turkey can now access the day’s newspapers thanks to her application, which provides a spoken-word version of the publications via a smartphone app, allowing 200,000 people with restricted or complete lack of vision to keep up to date with current events.

Kayaman suggests disabled women who want to take the initiative “should never give up until they find the right people to be the partner to their dreams.”

It is advice that rings true for Gulay Salman, who works with children with disabilities at the Sevgi Melekleri Arts Sanat Atolyesi (Love Angels Arts Workshop). Salman, a former kindergarten teacher from the province of Kocaeli, lost the use of the right side of her body due to paralysis five years ago. As part of her rehabilitation, she started to research on the internet what she could do with one hand and thus became interested in handicrafts. She made products such as candy and door ornaments, earning income from her efforts.

She then decided to share her talents, while providing socialization for children with disabilities, and has been running the workshop ever since.

Love Angels does not currently have a fixed location, something Salman hopes will change soon: “If a center can be established, children will be able to devote more time to crafts. We aim to pave the way for them to be independent individuals and obtain their own incomes. We want to build a structure where they can both socialize and acquire a profession.”

Salman adds that this goal is particularly important for girls with disabilities as they are viewed as being almost entirely dependent on their parents: “Parents are hardly ever separated from girls.”

For Salman, establishing a center and allowing children to empower themselves through crafts is a hugely important step in changing the way Turkish society views people with disabilities – something that the government’s quota legislation could never hope to cultivate.

“All people with disabilities have [the same] rights as other people. We can work, we can join politics, we can be business people. I do not want anybody to view people with disabilities in a pitying manner,” she says.

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