Meet the Match
A Jordanian Nurse Uses Sport to Mobilize People with Disabilities
As she made her way to the burn unit of Royal Rehabilitation Center for the hundredth time, Rola Allahaweh passed through the corridor the spinal cord injury unit. A military woman, she had finished her nursing degree from Mutah University and was working as a nurse at King Hussein Hospital while taking a burn management course.
“I saw many people in wheelchairs,” Rola recalls, “but I never stopped to think about their lives. I never imagined—not even in my dreams—that one day I would be a disabled person.”
In 2005, Rola’s life took a shocking and unexpected turn. She was at wedding celebration for her cousin when a bomb exploded at their hotel, as well as two others in Amman. She was struck by shrapnel in the skull, neck and back. The injury left her paralyzed with only use of her shoulders.
After her rehabilitation, Rola refused to give up. She traveled to the United Kingdom to complete an MBA from King’s College, focusing on the living experiences of people with spinal cord injuries. While there, she enjoyed going to the swimming pool and the independence available thanks to the accessibility of the city and its facilities. It was nothing like what she returned to in Jordan, where remaining independent became a challenge.
Rola took a position as a lecturer in the nursing college and began serving on the boards of the High Council for Affairs of Persons with Disabilities and the Hashemite Commission for Disabled Soldiers. She also helped organize a team of Jordanians to participate in the Invictus Games in 2016 and 2017. She was guided by a belief that anything is possible.
“Maybe you cannot change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust the sail,” Rola says. “Even if I can’t help myself, I can help someone else.”
As a nurse, Rola conducts medical research on post spinal cord jury. Much of this research focuses on quality of life, including the physical (pressure sores) and psychological (depression) consequences of disability. Over the years, she has discovered more about the crucial role played by sport and physical activity in strengthening and improving physical and psychological health, as well as the employability of the injured. Whether competitive or recreational, sport addresses depression and anxiety, improves self-esteem, and allows people to develop companionship. The psychological role played by sport is especially important for a population that faces everyday discrimination in work, education and sport. According to a 2015 report, 13 percent of the Jordanian population has a disability, and only 8 percent of those 15 years or older are employed.
In order to address these issues, significant disability rights legislation has been pushed by international organizations and a new comprehensive disability law was passed as recently as 2017. However, Rola says there is little to no enforcement.
“Many families hide their kids, especially if it’s an intellectual disability, because people feel if they show their disabled kid the shame will lead, for example, to their sister not getting married,” Rola says. “The negative attitudes are very strong. Employers correlate disability with low skills, and there is a lack of knowledge or expertise on how to accommodate those with disabilities in the workplace.”
Despite these challenges, Rola is optimistic about the 2017 law, especially with the support of the Jordanian royal family. The King has supported the Invictus Games, and Rola would like to use the support that is available to create facilities that provide sports and other needed services to people with disabilities.
More than developing and increasing the amount of sports available to people with disabilities in her country, Rola is focused on mobilizing and empowering people with disabilities—whether in sports or in any other area of life.
“If I can teach people that sport is a way for employment and it affects their economic state, this is progress,” Rola says. “To be disabled and speak to disabled people, I know they will listen to me because I know how they feel and I am here to help.”
Rola took part in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program with personal assistants Amal Allahaweh and Amy Bontuyan, who were supporting her along the way. During the program, she was mentored by Sarah Olson, military program coordinator for Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center. Sarah has had years of experience working on programs that promote fitness, independence and overall health at the largest independent living center in Arizona. She and her team helped expose Rola to new inclusive programming and taught her how to maximize resources for offering different services to the disabled community in Jordan. In turn, Rola provided an international perspective to the work done to serve and support injured military, as well as how disability sport advocates persevere to provide opportunities in inaccessible communities. Together, they are collaborating to impact and influence how sport-based empowerment is used in Jordan and in the United States.