Campaigners call for improved access for disabled at UAE airports

Experts say country's inclusive spirit is being celebrated at Special Olympics, but more work needs to be done to support people with disabilities


Bedour Al Raqbani, founder of the Kalimati Communication and Rehabilitation Centre for the hearing impaired.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

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Inclusion is at the heart of the UAE's historic hosting of the Special Olympics World Games next month - but campaigners say more still needs to be done to break down barriers for people of all disabilities.

More than 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, representing nearly 200 countries, will take centre stage in Abu Dhabi as the sporting spectacle comes to the Middle East for the first time from March 14 to 21.

It is a celebration of the UAE's vision to empower disabled people in the country - who have been hailed as 'people of determination' - and calls are being made to ensure efforts continue long after the Olympic party is over.

Bedour Al Raqbani, the Emirati founder of the Kalimati Communication and Rehabilitation Centre for the hearing impaired, said there must be a focus on those with less visible disabilities as well as those with more physical ailments.

She cited busy airports as being a particular cause of stress for people with special needs, and called for quiet spaces and sign language interpreters to be introduced to improve their experience.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia recently signed a landmark agreement to upgrade facilities and standardise travel procedures at airports for people with disabilities as part of a seven-point social and economic agenda.

“Many factors apart from physical accessibility must be taken into consideration across all needs to create a platform that will allow these individuals to be independent travellers,” said Ms Al Raqbani.

“Communication accessibility has to be available if people require auditory assistance and sign language interpretation. There must also be training for staff so that the individual is not made to feel any less than any other travellers.”

Ms Al Raqbani said she had travelled overseas with her 30-year-old sister, who has autism, and has had positive experiences at European airports boasting waiting rooms designed for families caring for people with special needs.

“The airport and travel is an overwhelming experience for my sister and it is something we go through as a family," she said.

“It’s not only children but also adults with autism that need to be considered. Not all families can afford to go to a lounge, so some airports have created specific waiting rooms designed for children who have autism.

“A space that is calm and open with complimentary access can be a safe haven for families to rest before boarding because travelling in a plane can be a cause of trauma.

A space that is calm and open with complimentary access can be a safe haven for families.

"This environment will lessen the stress for the family and will be a positive experience when they travel internationally. I do hope to see this in the region.”

Ajman resident Shaikh Bavazeer, a financial consultant, said he was confined to a wheelchair due to polio, but is still able to drive around the country in a modified car with a hand-controlled break.

When flying, he uses two separate wheelchairs; the first provided by the airport so his own can be checked in and the second, more compact wheelchair, for use while onboard the aircraft.

Travel remained an awkward and tense experience for many people with disabilities, he said.

“The journey can be painful if the right access is not available because people don’t understand the hassles we face,” he said.

“I can use my hands so I can transfer myself from one wheelchair to another, but it should be done in a private area. It is very embarrassing if a person needs to be carried and lifted with the whole public watching you.

“If we can transfer into just one wheelchair for use in the airport and also inside the aircraft, it would make the journey easier.

"There is so much scope to improve travel for us as passengers. Changes do not need to be expensive, we just need to be creative.”

Khadijah Abdulrahman, professor of human resource management at Zayed University’s College of Business, said the general public should be mindful of people who do not show external signs of disability.

“People with autism and other disorders may not look like they need help, but we should have messages and campaigns so the public is aware that there are ways to approach them," she said.

"Measures such as providing more wheelchairs, personal assistance and training employees already exist in some airports.

“But as a community and society we need to make people of determination feel included and create a positive impact. It is everyone’s responsibility to accommodate and be supportive of diverse needs.”