Calgary mosque strives to increase awareness, acceptance of Muslims with disabilities

A Calgary Islamic centre is working to improve how people with disabilities are viewed and treated in the Muslim community, as well as improving accessibility to its mosque, welcoming more disabled worshippers.

Akram Jomaa Islamic Centre wants to get people talking more about physical and mental disabilities, changing the narrative and challenging misconceptions around Muslims with special needs and their families.

The senior imam at Akram Jomaa Islamic Centre in northeast Calgary included the topic in a Khutba, or sermon, for the first time last week.

The centre has also been working towards completing a checklist of changes that could make it the first mosque in Canada to meet a Mosque certification program laid out by U.S. non-profit Muhsen, which advocates for Muslims with disabilities and pushes for mosques to be more inclusive.

"This is about acceptance and understanding, building a more inclusive community," said Nada Merhi, vice chair of Akram Jomaa Islamic Centre, and the driving force behind the change.

"I want to make sure there are no families left behind or no individuals left behind," said Merhi. "We are collectively responsible for each other." 

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Some in the community associate disabilities with shame and even punishment — as something to hide. In parts of the Arab world, Africa and South Asia, disability is still a taboo subject, with disabled citizens excluded from many aspects of life and ostracized.

"I think they feel like they are not accepted or welcome," said Merhi, talking about Muslims with disabilities living in Calgary.

"In every community there's a culturally produced stigma that we have to navigate through," she said.

As well as changing attitudes around conditions from Autism Spectrum Disorder to Cerebral Palsy, Merhi has a list of changes around accessibility, too, including: improved wheelchair access, elevator access, education, programs and better support and outreach for individuals and families.

In another first for the mosque, information tables with disability-related literature and leaflets were put up at last week's Friday prayers in both the men's and women's sections of the mosque to start conversations and share information. 

Nada Merhi says her mission is to increase inclusivity and to connect with families to work together on making improvements.

"I want to understand what they need from us and what they want from us and how we can support them at another level," said Merhi.

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The changes at Akram Jomaa will be part of a broader collective effort by Muslim organizations across the city involving other mosques, with the Muslim Council of Calgary taking the lead.

"For a while disability hasn't been mentioned in our community," said Omar El-Hajjar, chair of Akram Jomaa.

"There's been a bit of a stigma going on out there that persons with special needs may not be so much welcomed in our centres and we want to change that, we are very concerned about that," he said.

El-Hajjar says the centre is already close to meeting Muhsen's certification standards.

"We're almost there, we've got a couple of things left that need to be done and one is to spread the word and it's been going very well," he said.

El-Hajjar says they'll continue to work with imams to spread awareness and education inside and outside of the mosque, reminding worshippers of their obligations within their faith, as well as the broader community.