DUBAI // Ahmed al Rifli plans to break down taboos on his new television talk show Daftar, including one that is very close to home. The 22-year-old presenter and University of Sharjah student, who is blind, is a rarity in Emirati society, let alone on the small screen a special-needs person in the public eye.
Two of his brothers, out of seven siblings, are also blind. He believes that somewhere in his lineage consanguinity, or intermarriage, may be to blame. It is a topic he plans to tackle in an upcoming episode of his weekly magazine show, the first aimed at an audience f Emirati students. Launched in January, it is shown across the country live each Sunday at 8pm on the recently launched free-to-air channel Al Dafrah TV.
"I don't know much about this but I have been doing some reading as I want to find out more," he said. "It is something we will talk about on my show. The younger generation don't intermarry so much these days but for many years, people didn't know anything about the problems of intermarriage." Dr Chris Canning, the chief executive at Moorfields Eye Hospital in Dubai, believes that blindness caused by genetic diseases is much more prevalent here than in other parts of the world, "due to both cousin marriages and the large size of families".
However, there has not been extensive enough research to quantify this, he said. "Since I've been here, I've seen around 50 families with members affected over the last 18 months or so," he said. With his new high profile, Mr al Rifli hopes he can do his part to spark change in Emirati society, where people with special needs and disabilities are seldom seen in public, let alone hold jobs. They just need to be given the chance, he said.
"The Government are trying to solve this problem and support people with special needs," he said. "They think they can't do anything. They don't have the support to keep going. The family don't encourage them to live a normal life, they just keep them at home." Adel al Zamar, the vice president for the Emirates Association of the Blind, said that Rifli would be an inspiration for other youngsters with disabilities.
Mr al Zamar was exposed to Mr al Rifli's talents years ago when he began hosting events and giving speeches for the organisation. "There are some problems getting people to work, especially in the media but for people like Ahmed, he can hold the challenge," Mr al Zamar said. "The law here changed recently which protects the rights of blind people, giving them opportunities to work and study and Ahmed is a great example of this. We'd like to see many more people like him in many fields, not just the media."
The stigma for people with special needs is not unique to the Emirates, but is a problem across the Arab world, said Mr al Rifli. He believes it starts with the lack of integration in schools with other children and ends up in the workplace. "If you're special-needs, that means you can't think? There is no culture here for this and no contact with special-needs kids," he said. Mr al Rifli got started in broadcasting just last year when he worked on a poetry show on the Arabic satellite channel Nojoom TV. Before that he was a presenter on Noor Dubai radio, a news and social affairs station focusing on youth issues, which is where he first embraced his disability and began addressing specific issues facing those with special needs and where people began to respond.
It was "very popular" he said, people feeling suddenly as if there was something out there for them. "It wasn't just good for those with special needs but it helps to educate people about it. It's also interesting for those people who work with them, to hear their perspective in a more social forum." He pitched the idea for Daftar, which means book, to the channel himself last year, arguing that there was a demand for a topical show for and about special-needs students.
Al Rifli attended the Dubai Handicapped School until he was 10, when he was one of three blind students to be integrated into high school classes at Al Emarat and Al Maarif. Such integration is a goal of the Ministry of Education, which announced in October that over the next three years it would equip 60 schools across the country with facilities to accommodate children with special needs. The Ministry said almost half of the schools would be ready to accept pupils next year.
Mr al Rifli's experience was proof enough for him that integration works, benefiting both the children with special needs and the able-bodied, who would otherwise have little or no contact with special-needs individuals. "We were like a new challenge for the children," he said, smiling. "It was great fun." It was not until the post-secondary level that he began to struggle in education, spending an unhappy year fending for himself at the American University of Dubai.
"Nobody could help me," he said. "There were no volunteers to help me with reading in exams, I didn't get extra time or any make-up classes, so I changed my university." His situation greatly improved after he moved to the University of Sharjah, where he is in his second year earning a degree in public relations and communications. As for his show, Mr al Rifli said he will have no trouble coming up with ideas. "You will never run out of topics with students," he said.