She types with her foot, nudges the phone upright, and presses the camera shutter button with a toe to take a selfie.
Saba Norouzi is a computer scientist, director of the IT department for a Qazvin disabled association, and IT technician for the Firooz Health Group, famous for its baby shampoos. She was born with phocomelia, a birth defect that left both her hands and her left foot malformed. She learned to live, work and create using her right foot instead.
The photo is just one of millions of selfies posted daily on Instagram, a platform (in)famous for aspirational content. Saba’s account is no exception. One of her pictures displays three young women, out in nature, beaming and staring proudly straight into the camera on the twentieth day of spring 2021. But it's the caption of the post that makes it special: “This photo was taken with my foot."
Beating the Blues Through Drawing
Saba Norouzi is 37 years old. Unlike many educated millenials in Iran, she holds down multiple jobs directly related to her field of study. Physical disability, she told IranWire, has never stopped her from doing the things she loves.
“I do karate," she says. "I’m no professional painter, but I do charcoal sketches when I’m nervous and want to calm down. I like to put my negative energy down on paper; when I do a sketch, it’s as if I’m throwing out all the blackness that has accumulated around me, all the ill-feeling I’ve absorbed. I always draw before going to bed so I can sleep comfortably and go to work in the morning with good energy.”
She describes herself as a resolute positive thinker. “Even people who are healthy tell me that they get a lot of energy from me. That makes me happy. It’s not just for people with disabilities; I want to say to all those people who’re disappointed with their situation and feel they don’t benefit society, all those who see their situation today as a prison, that it’s still possible to do things even in these difficult conditions. You can still be hopeful in life and get rid of that bad mood.”
Bittersweet Victories in Work and Life
Saba Norouzi's LinkedIn page is also chock-full of videos and pictures that demonstrate how she carries out her daily tasks. One of them, posted in typical good humor, shows her touch-typing at extraordinary speed using just her toes.
“I’m writing this to let you know there’s a girl out there who turned threats in her life into opportunities,” she writes. “Now watch this space, let’s see what happens. Not that I’m so happy! No! But I really do love my life. I like it this way.”
In another article, Norouzi begins: “I was born on my feet.” She describes scribbling in her aunt’s notebooks as a child and learning to write her parents’ names using her left foot, and shares a memory of painting with her foot at a conference in front of a hundreds-strong crowd.
But, Saba Norouzi says, it’s not always like this. Sometimes she cries inside. But she doesn’t write about this, so as not to bring others down. “I have little desire to write about my inner life on social media,” she told IranWire. “Only to the extent that it’ll be informative and motivate others.
“I don’t like to moan about my problems. Even if I do mention the difficulties, I’ll do so in a way that’s pleasant and funny. I don’t want anyone getting upset about my situation. It’s enough for me to help lift just one or two people’s spirits [with a post]. People with disabilities aren’t helpless, and experience life’s ups and downs like anyone else. It might be a little harder-going, but we have lives.”
Prostheses in Iran are ‘High-Cost, Low-Quality’
Over time, Norouzi has learned how to advance her professional career and personal life in spite of the physical limitations. But there are other hurdles: for one thing, the high cost of getting prostheses made up and repaired in Iran. “The government doesn’t intervene and the Welfare Organization doesn’t cover the costs. We hear all the time that the Welfare Organization pays for mobility aids, but the fact is it doesn’t – or only pays a fraction of the cost. Right now, my prosthetic leg is broken, but I’ve held it together with glue; I wouldn’t dare try to change it.”
It’s not just the high cost of artificial limbs but the poor quality and outward appearance that holds her back, she says. “In other countries they’re beautiful, and people with disabilities like mine can wear whatever clothes they like. But because of the way they are in Iran, for a long time I wore only baggy pants so it didn’t show.”
It took many years for Norouzi to get to this point. For a long time, she struggled to accept her own situation, let alone start trying to normalize it. “Previously, I didn’t want people who didn’t know me in the real world to know about my physical limitations. But then I attended a body cognition class. I realized we could let each of our body parts communicate. Gradually, it helped me acknowledge online that I had a disability.
“At first, people didn’t believe it. They said my ‘face’ didn’t ‘look like’ that of a disabled person. But as I wrote more about myself, published more photos, showed others how I worked, exercise and drew with my feet, they started to say they were gaining a lot from me. That feedback encourages me in putting myself and my abilities online, and to try to change the image people have of people with disabilities.”
Norouzi believes her work is having an impact on other disabled people in Iran, too: “People call me from time to time saying they didn’t want to leave the house before, but were inspired when they saw me. They say they’re not scared anymore; they want more people to see them.”
According to official statistics, more than 15 percent of people in Iran have some form of disability, visible or invisible. Because of the socio-cultural environment in many parts of the country, very few are visible in the media and public life.
But in Norouzi’s view, the situation is improving. Improved awareness and public pressure have pushed some municipalities to install better facilities and equipment for people with disabilities, in both work settings and public spaces. “New standards have been set for buildings and highways. For example, we now have paving stones for the blind. In Qazvin, where I live, I see the municipality constantly meeting with the associations, taking guidance from people in wheelchairs on issues on the roads.
“We’ll have to see how far the guidelines are implemented. But in order for people with disabilities to live a normal life, we also have to change public opinion on the issue. We need to stop considering people with impairments as abnormal.”