There are 1 billion people living with disabilities in the world, according to the World Bank – roughly 15 per cent of the global population, with a higher prevalence in developing countries.
Securing the rights of disabled people must therefore be a priority for the Middle East, home to an estimated 30 million people of determination, many of whom live in disadvantaged circumstances.
In the UAE, the government has the means and has demonstrated the will to make a difference by designating it a priority issue. In 2019, Abu Dhabi hosted the Special Olympics, in which more than 7,000 athletes from around the world competed. Comprehensive laws are in place to guarantee employment and education rights of people of determination. This year, Dubai announced the creation of the Higher Committee to Protect the Rights of People of Determination.
As a result of such actions, asserting the rights of the disabled around the world is clearly an integral part of the Emirates's modern identity.
Other Middle Eastern countries are making progress, too. Last week, The National reported on a new public beach in the Egyptian city of Alexandria that accommodates visually impaired and blind people. Free of charge, Al Mandara has a wheelchair-accessible path to the water, floating ropes for swimmers to hold on to, intensified lifeguard supervision and free whistles to attract attention.
Much of the city's miles-long Corniche, its most distinctive feature, is taken up by public beaches. A new spot for the visually impaired and blind will give an all-too-often marginalised group of Alexandrians easier access to a key part of their identity: the sea.
Anywhere in the world, more presence in day-to-day life, be it work or leisure, is an important step in making the lives of disabled people easier. Doing so breaks boundaries, encourages solidarity and reminds able-bodied people of the importance and presence of a community that is sometimes not acknowledged enough.
The new beach comes amid a national effort in Egypt to increase the number of public recreation areas available for people with disabilities and to support them with better services, underpinned by the 2018 Rights of Persons with Disabilities law, which calls for non-discrimination, equality and respect.
The government can help. But one of the most impressive aspects of this new project is that civil society drove it. Speaking of the pride Alexandrians feel over the new beach, Tarek Khalifa, a board member of the Alexandria Association for the Blind, told The National: “We have been asking for this for several years now and thank God it came to fruition.”
The work and advocacy of such groups is crucial. Hundreds of disabled people can now enjoy an activity taken for granted by so many. But more widely, many thousands of able-bodied people will see how society can and should seize the initiative and make a difference.
Some parts of the Middle East might lack the means to match the level of funding given to helping disabled people in richer parts of the world. But, from the UAE to Egypt, the strength of the region's families, communities and societies can lead to a different type of help, one that comes from taking the initiative and community-building. Al Mandara is a perfect example.