Disability Intersects Muslim Identity for Chicagoans

Religious books sit on a shelf at the Downtown Islamic Center

By Peter Jones

Aziza Nassar and Muhammed S. Ullah are two American Muslims living with disabilities. Although President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning all refugees and travelers from seven mainly Muslim countries has left Muslims in the U.S. feeling marginalized, Muslims with disabilities are feeling even more isolated.

The U.S. Religion Census estimated that the Muslim population of Illinois was 35,000 in 2010. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, approximately 10.7 percent of people in the state are living with a disability. That means an estimated 3,700 Muslims with disabilities live in Illinois. Despite their sizeable population, Muslims with disabilities often avoid attending mosques because they are not accessible to the disabled.

Aziza Nassar has not had such an easy time merging her faith with a disability. After losing her father and starting to use a wheelchair at age 15, Nassar and her family turned to their local mosque for support. But accessing that mosque proved difficult.

“I would sit outside and then finally [I] would ask a lot of the men and women to just physically pick me up in my wheelchair and bring me down the steps,” Nassar said.

Accompanying audio: Aziza Nassar recounts her experience as a Muslim with a disability.

“It’s very rare that disabled people come here,” said Muhammed Ahmad Ullah, who manages the Downtown Islamic Center, 231 S. State St., which has elevators and handicap accessible bathrooms. “Here, I don’t see any issues.”

Despite being on the fourth floor, the Downtown Islamic Center has elevators and handicap accessible bathrooms.

His son, Muhammad S. Ullah, is legally blind, but his father says that disability has never prevented him from fulfilling his religious obligations as a practicing Muslim.

“To my knowledge, he has never had any difficulty,” he says.

For the wider Muslim community, disabilities can prevent them from worshipping because their mosques do not accommodate them. One reason for this could be that Islamic teachings do not explicitly mention physical or mental impairments

“Disability as a term is not something you find in the lexicon of Islam,” said Tahir Abdullah, assistant director of spiritual life and advisor for Muslim affairs at the University of Chicago. “What you do find is reference to disease.”

However, one organization’s work is making Muslim spaces more inclusive for the disabled. Based outside of Chicago, Muslims Understanding & Helping Special Education Needs (MUHSEN) operates at the national level and includes a certification program for mosques.

“There’s a whole community of people who want to be able to grow in their faith,” said Shaheen Shedbalkar, project coordinator at MUHSEN, “but they’re just not able to.”

To become certified by MUHSEN, mosques must meet a set of checkpoints that go beyond the minimum required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Silver is the most basic certification level, with gold and platinum levels being awarded to mosques complying with more stringent requirements.

Still, there’s hope for the future as more local mosques begin to consider their disabled members. Shedbalkar said there are currently four fully certified mosques in the Chicago area and that by March, there should be 10-12 certified mosques nationwide.

Nassar says hope for the future depends on community support and organization. “We’re more powerful together than we are apart.”

Photo at top: Religious books sit on a shelf at the Downtown Islamic Center. (Peter Jones/MEDILL)