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Blind pop star campaigns on disability

By Catriona Davies for CNN
Turkish pop star Metin Senturk is an advocate for disability issues.
Turkish pop star Metin Senturk is an advocate for disability issues.
  • Blind pop star uses his television show to discuss disability issues
  • Senturk plans to stand for National Assembly
  • He wants people with disabilities to "never feel hopeless"

CNN's global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In December, we visit Turkey and look at changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

(CNN) -- Metin Senturk is a Turkish pop star and chat show host, with his own weekly television program on music and celebrity gossip, and nine albums to his name.

He is also blind, and a prominent campaigner on disability issues.

Senturk, 44, who founded the Istanbul-based World Handicapped Foundation, wants to stand for the Turkish National Assembly to promote disabled rights and says he mentions disability on his television show every opportunity he gets.

Earlier this year, Senturk set a Guinness World Record for the fastest blind driver, reaching 181 mph in a Ferrari to raise awareness of disability. His car was followed by another driver giving him instructions in an earpiece.

Senturk considers himself a "pioneer" for the 8.5 million people with disabilities in Turkey.

"I believe in my heart that if an impaired person believes and trusts herself or himself," he said, there's nothing they can't succeed at. "All we need is being given the chances."

He lost his sight in an accident at the age of three. He was the only blind pupil in his mainstream high school and went on to study classical music at university.

"I didn't let my impairment be a barrier for me. Things happen to people and we all have stories."

The tireless advocate wants people with disabilities to "really grab life from its collar and never feel hopeless."

He acknowledges he's been more fortunate than others. "Being a star in Turkey, I am very lucky to have personal assistants, but for an average person there are certain problems," he said.

Many people with disabilities face barriers in getting to work -- and even school, says Idil Isil Gul, a disability expert and lecturer in public international law and human rights at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Only 20% of Turkey's disabled population is employed, according to the country's Disability Study 2002, the most recent official data available.

The world shouldn't be designed for one type of person, but for every type of people.
--Metin Senturk, pop star

Gul said: "Most disabled people stay at home and do nothing, because they can't get to work or to school."

Employers with more than 50 workers are required by law to employ a 3% quota of disabled staff, and receive financial help to do so.

Gul claims, though, that many companies simply pay workers to stay at home, or employ them only in the lowest-skilled jobs.

She was a researcher on a 2007 International Disability Rights Monitor report, which rated Turkey among the least inclusive societies in Europe.

In recent years, though, there have been efforts in Turkey to remove some of those barriers.

Turkey's first Law on Persons with Disabilities, introduced in 2005, is supposed to make all public buildings wheelchair accessible by 2012.

A website specifically to help disabled people find jobs, Engelsizkariyer -- or Barrier-Free Careers -- was launched in 2008.

"Employers are generally reluctant to hire disabled employees since they see them as a burden, even if they are well educated," said Hasibe Kiziltas of Engelsizkariyer.

In addition to employment opportunities, Engelsizkariyer provides career guidance and runs a helpline for disabled workers who face bullying at work, which is a major problem, according to Kiziltas.

Technological innovations are also widening access to some everyday activities, such as banking.

Earlier this month, Turkey's Yapi Kredi bank launched an ATM which talks visually-impaired customers through their transactions. It also rolled out point of sale machines that act in a similar manner.

Developed as part of the bank's broader efforts to improve services to people with disabilities, Yapi Kredi says the point of sale machine is the first of its kind in the world.

Yakup Dogan, executive vice president of Yapi Kredi, said disabled people "face countless difficulties at every turn in their everyday lives due to inadequate support."

The ATM and point of sale machines are designed to help the visually impaired "participate more in daily life, at least in the banking sector," he said.

The Talking ATM has a plug for headphones which triggers text-to-speech technology to provide an audible transaction.

The first machine was opened at a branch in Istanbul to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. The bank plans to roll them out across Turkey in coming months.

According to Gul, the researcher, "things are beginning to change, but not as quickly as they should be."

Senturk believes there developments taking place in Turkey are encouraging, but he thinks even more can be done, which is one of the reasons why he wants to stand for Turkish National Assembly.

"I think the municipalities should work harder for the impaired people and they should handle all those architectural problems for the impaired people to start with," he said.

"In short, the world shouldn't be designed for one type of person, but for every type of people."