Walking … for good!
By Michael Haddad
The first law of thermodynamics that I learned in school states that energy remains constant — it is neither created nor destroyed. The total amount of energy stays the same, but the forms that it can take can change.
Sitting in the make-shift exercise room that I set up at home to stay in shape under COVID-19, I pondered how this simple law encapsulates my life pursuits and struggles.
More than 30 years ago, I was given a life sentence: “You will never be able to walk again.” An accident had taken away 75 percent of my motor abilities and left me paralyzed from the chest down.
I was six. I wanted to go to school, pursue sports and play with my friends. At the time, schools were not fitted for a kid in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, in Lebanon, most remain inaccessible today.
All the energy I could muster from my faith and my aspirations for the future, I focused on one goal — to walk. I had to be mobile. I had to be free. I had to lead a “normal” life.
Armed with a primitive full body brace I was able to stand upright. For me, that was not enough. I challenged my physicians and caretakers: Give me advanced assistive technologies and I will walk. They did.
I channelled my energy to teach myself how to shift the centre of gravity of my body and control my balance using the functional muscles in my chest and arms. I took countless falls and endured cuts and bruises, but in the end, I walked.
Walking was not an end. It was my means to channel my energy towards a higher purpose, which I discovered after years of self-reflection and searching — contributing to humanity and helping heal our planet. Sounds like a packaged answer of a contestant in a beauty pageant? Maybe, but it was true.
I volunteered with a group of brilliant scientists from two leading universities in Lebanon to translate my unique method of walking into developing improved assistive exoskeletal technologies and brain modulation techniques that hold promise for other people with similar disabilities.
I also learned how to use my story to argue for better policies for persons with disabilities — about one in seven people in Lebanon.
At the same time, I explored avenues of action on my other passion — the environment.
I carried a cedar seedling as I took my first 60,000-step purpose walk in Bsharri to call for the reforestation of Lebanon’s depleted ancient cedar forests.
I scaled Beirut’s iconic Raouche Rock to bring attention to the escalating problem of sea pollution and its threat to marine life.
Then I snowshoed the Black Summit, the highest peak in Lebanon and the Levant area, to draw attention to the adverse effects of global warming.
In 2016, I teamed up with UNDP in Lebanon and served as a Climate Change Champion, then, in November 2019, I was designated as an Arab States Goodwill Ambassador for Climate Action.
To bring attention to climate change, the defining crisis of our time, I proposed walking 100 kilometres across the polar ice cap — a Polar Walk for Climate Action.
I was happy to receive an inspiring infusion of energy in the form an endorsement to the polar walk with the UN flag from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Soon after, another existential crisis took the world by storm. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on daily lives and livelihoods across the globe, causing pain and loss of lives everywhere.
The whole world had to invest all its energy in responding both to the immediate health crisis and to the longer term social and economic impacts.
My walk across the North Pole had to be postponed to the following year. But I kept training, albeit limited to what I could do at home.
In Lebanon COVID-19 exacerbated existing economic hardships. Some were not able to access their own money in the banks.
Hardest hit were people with disabilities. The economic crises made it very difficult for them to continue to get the assistive devices and supplies that are necessary for their health and wellbeing and the pandemic imposed on them greater isolation and detachment.
It was time to re-channel my energy once again and put it at UNDP’s disposal.
We agreed to do a series of Stepping Ahead of COVID walks to promote the second generation of UNDP’s COVID-19 response, which advocates for turning the greatest reversal of human development that the world has seen into momentum to “build forward better,” towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
The walks will initially focus on supporting disability-inclusive recovery, then will progressively expand to prioritizing sustainable recovery pathways, including green job creation, and renewable solutions.
We were preparing for the first walk proposed to take place in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, when a huge explosion rocked my hometown Beirut.
The explosion was a much-needed wake-up call for all of us in Lebanon. It highlighted the need for urgent action to address longstanding structural problems in governance, corruption, and the provision of essential services.
For people with disabilities, the explosion afforded an opportunity to expedite action required to address their urgent need for assistive devices and supplies and to advocate for the reconstruction of the damaged areas to set a model for an inclusive and physically accessible urban environment, both in Beirut and across Lebanon.
I worked with UNDP and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia headquartered in Beirut, on a new initiative to mobilize a wide partnership to support persons with disabilities and reduce their exposure to increasing vulnerabilities due to Lebanon’s manifold crises.
To kick off this new initiative and help attract partners and funding to it, on 14 October 2020, I will do my Beirut Walk for the Inclusion of People with disabilities.
I will walk four kilometres from downtown Beirut to the damaged Karantina Public Hospital, which used to provide essential care to the most vulnerable such as refugees, migrant workers and impoverished Lebanese.
With my next walks proposed in Cairo, Rabat and New York, I will still keep my eyes focused on ending up in the North Pole next June.
Throughout my tenure as a regional goodwill ambassador for UNDP and beyond I will continue to employ my story, my voice, and my steps to serve good purposes for my fellow people with disabilities, all people in need, and our shared and beleaguered planet.