Lives of disabled have improved, but there is still a long way to go

More needs to be done to improve the lives of the disabled in the UAE, writes Sanah Sheikh

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There is no doubt that over the past 10 years the UAE has made great strides towards improving the lives of people with disabilities. There have been clear legislative and strategic steps, starting with Federal Law No. 29 in 2006 that stated the equal rights of the disabled. This was followed by the signing and ratifying of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Moreover, this prioritisation of the rights of the people with disabilities is also reflected in a number of strategic development plans. But to what extent have these laws and policies actually improved their lives?

The most dramatic change has been brought about by the Inclusion movement. Campaigns by educators and parents of children with special education needs (SEN) have resulted in the integration of SEN children in mainstream public and private schools across the country. This demonstrates not only the power of active citizenship, but also the responsiveness of leaders that are keen to listen. Admittedly, the quality of provision does vary and schools are facing multiple challenges in trying to make inclusion a reality. However, there is a commitment and drive among stakeholders – teachers, parents, policymakers, regulators and inspection bodies – to improve practices.

Improving access to employment for people with disabilities is also high on the national agenda. There is an increasing recognition that, with the right opportunity and the right support, special-needs people can contribute positively to society. Initiatives such as the Community and Development Authority’s El Kayt programme are training, mentoring and helping people with disabilities find employment that suit their skills and qualifications. Private- and public-sector organisations are making good on their commitments to employ more people with disabilities. For example, the Desert Group employs about 40 people with disabilities and is a regular exhibitor at the annual ABILITIESme conference. Similarly, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) reportedly employs seven people with disabilities. It has modified its facilities to make them more accessible for those employees.

Public services in Dubai are also making similar efforts. Dubai’s “My community … a city for everyone” initiative aims to make the emirate disability-friendly by 2020. Meanwhile, Dubai Municipality reported that it was aiming to make all parks in the emirate at least partially accessible to disabled people by 2016. Similarly, the Roads and Transport Authority has launched taxi vans that are accessible by wheelchair, while staff at DEWA have been taught sign language.

While these achievements should be appreciated, more can be done. Cultural and social attitudes still represent the biggest barrier to the inclusion of people with disabilities. A fear of rejection means that people with disabilities are often confined to their homes or special centres.

Attitudes also tend to be shaped by misconceptions and lack of understanding, particularly with regard to intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome. In fact, there is a stigma attached to every mental health condition, including depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The situation is particularly critical for disabled women, who often face multiple disadvantages by virtue of their gender as well as being disabled. This scenario is concerning, particularly as mental health is one of the top five health issues in this country.

Changing attitudes and perceptions is key if the UAE is serious about its commitment to people with disabilities. There is a clear need for education and engagement that will build awareness and understanding. Education needs to start at a young age, meaning that schools can play an important role.

There is also a need for disability-specific campaigns focusing, for example, on ones that will challenge the lack of understanding, ignorance and negative assumptions about people with disabilities. Given the particularly debilitating effect of negative family attitudes, parents of children with disabilities also need to be given emotional and psychological support.

There also needs to be greater visibility and more positive representation of people with disabilities in the media. The media plays a vital role in reinforcing attitudes and the use of appropriate terminology and positive coverage of contributions to society by these people can have a remarkable effect.

There is no doubt that a change is taking place, but if the UAE is to move forward then it will have to reconceptualise disability and embrace the social model of disability, where the focus is no longer on the limitations caused by people’s impairments but on the physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers that exist in society. And this requires commitment and contribution from every member of society.

Sanah Sheikh is a research associate at the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government