Study highlights problems facing disabled Emirati women

Researchers at UAE University and the Ministry of Social Affairs found that disabled Emirati women suffer from "double discrimination" for their disability and gender.

November 24, 2010 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Nada Jaafar al Bustani (CQ), Head of Quality Assurance Unit with The Higher National Security Council, National Emergency and Crisis Management Authority, at her office, Wednesday, November 24, 2010 in Abu Dhabi. Bustani is currently working to prepare and develop a guide for the security and safety of people with special needs within the UAE. She also aims to raise awareness in the UAE about people with special needs and to help establish a data base documenting those with special needs.
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ABU DHABI // Nada Al Bustani saw her life reflected this week in a study that shows the hardships disabled Emirati women face in areas including education, employment and participating in their communities.

The study released by researchers at UAE University and the Ministry of Social Affairs found three quarters of disabled Emirati women struggle to find work, 64 per cent have difficulty finding marriage partners and 80 per cent encounter negative attitudes towards them.

"I've worked in places where people didn't know how to deal with me," said Ms Al Bustani, 41, an Emirati who was born with a bone disorder that requires her to use a wheelchair. "I've had to advocate for the fact that I need a bathroom that is accessible."

The report into life for disabled Emirati women was released on Wednesday and funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.

"They are easily ignored or neglected by all people," said Dr Abdelaziz Sartawi, the study's lead researcher and chairman of the special education department at UAE University. "It's not only a problem in the UAE but in all developing countries, and in the Arab region."

The researchers tackled the topic of disabled women because it is rarely discussed in the Arab world, Dr Sartawi said.

"There are no studies in this domain," he said. "We thought it was very important for us, and the country, to know what is going on and to deal with the issue appropriately."

The study was one of several grant-winning projects from the 2009 Emirati Family Research Competition.

Researchers surveyed 150 Emirati girls and women with disabilities, and 150 able-bodied women. They also interviewed 38 parents of disabled children.

The study found women with disabilities suffer from "double discrimination", because of their disability and because they are female.

"Women are usually protected in any society but here if you have special needs, especially if you have mental retardation, protection is a little bit extra," said Ms Al Bustani, a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong in Dubai studying emergency management for vulnerable and special-needs populations.

She said Emirati families were sometimes scared to send daughters with disabilities into the world, and the effort to protect women could hold them back.

"You are stopping the person from living their life in a full manner," Ms Al Bustani said.

Other women might hold themselves back because they are ashamed or afraid, said Awatif Akbari, who is blind.

"Some of them, they don't want even to move from the house," Ms Akbari, 34, said.

The report also found disabled women face numerous obstacles in school, in vocational training and at work.

Parents of daughters with disabilities told the researchers their children had encountered a lack of acceptance from peers and teachers, inappropriate examination systems and difficulty finding transport.

"If you look at the curriculum, it's not designed at all for them," Dr Sartawi said.

The visually impaired might need access to Braille materials or special computers, and the hearing impaired to sign language interpreters.

An even higher number of parents said their daughters faced work-related problems, with 74.7 per cent saying their daughter had trouble finding work, and 73.3 per cent reporting it was hard for their daughters to find a work environment adaptable to their needs.

"Usually the first thing I look at when I go to an interview is, are there ramps, is there a bathroom?" Ms Al Bustani said.

The parents also reported a lack of opportunities for marriage.

Researchers concluded policymakers and advocates must create more opportunities for disabled women. They also suggested increasing community outreach to families and recommended more clubs and programmes.

The UAE is already "stepping up" to create programmes, Dr Sartawi said.

Ms Akbari said the situation had improved in recent years.

"I think it's becoming better, you know, because of awareness," she said.

Ms Akbari and Ms Al Bustani found jobs they enjoy - Ms Al Bustani with the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority, and Ms Akbari with Tamkeen, a training centre in Dubai for the visually impaired.

"As to marriage, I don't think about this because now I feel that I have my freedom," Ms Akbari said. "I don't feel that I have lost something."

* With additional reporting by Ola Salem