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Better Access for the Disabled is an Economic Need Too

Published on: July 2009​
Genre: Dubai Model​ Category: Op eds​
Imagine that 95 per cent of your favourite places in Dubai were suddenly off-limits. When you finally manage to access these places, the stares, comments and ostracism would probably keep you at home. A recent serious accident involving four fractures – including two in my pelvis – has given me particular insight into the plight of those with disabilities in the UAE.

The UAE Government passed Federal Law No 29 in 2006. This law mandates that those with disabilities have access to education, work opportunities, health and rehabilitation services, legal assistance and equal access into new property development projects. I applaud the Government for addressing this issue, but we are far from finished in creating equal opportunities for all.

As I hobble around on my new walker, there are two areas of concern for those with disabilities that deserve particular attention. First of all, existing structures in Dubai are anything but disability-friendly. Bringing a walker is impossible to many places and a wheelchair, unthinkable. Second, changing buildings is one thing; changing attitudes is another. We need to recognise that people with disabilities are not something to be hidden away – in fact, they have the ability to make substantial contributions to our society.

While Victor Pineda eloquently appealed to our sense of ethics and morality last month in these pages, calling for the integration of disabled persons into society, I appeal to your self interest. Because disability can happen to you, and secondly, because an attitude toward the disabled that marginalises them hurts you and the society as a whole through their lost productivity and innovation, we all have a stake in making the country more accessible to them.

"Happen to me?" you may think, "of course not." Have you ever crossed a street? Driven a car? Gone to a swimming pool? Sadly, people have injured themselves permanently doing all of these things. People have strokes in their 30s that paralyse them. Like death, disability is something none of us wants to think about but people seem to ignore the possibility of disability completely. "Oh, I’m not like those people," you think. "I plan ahead. I have disability insurance." Well, even a five million dirham policy isn’t going to buy you a wheelchair accessible seat at your favourite movie theatre or restaurant or provide you with handicapped parking at your workplace.

"What are my chances," you ask, "of experiencing such a disability?" Well, what are your chances of growing old? Like it or not, your mobility, irrespective of any underlying medical condition, declines with age. You will care about whether walkers, canes, and wheelchairs can easily navigate malls or restaurants. Your parents’ generation may have been happy to spend their golden years at home. But it seems unlikely that those used to constant movement, travel, and outside activities will be content with a life confined to a villa, however spacious and luxurious.

But of course this doesn’t only involve you. For every disabled person out of the workforce, there is someone at home taking care of him or her, often leading to two people not working and unable to contribute to the economy. But if a disabled person is given the necessary support and tools to work, both he or she and their caregiver will be able to return to the workforce.

We also know that people who have more social contact have better health outcomes, so it is likely that working, or more active engagement with society, will reduce medical costs. Since medical costs are often shared in a society, we’re all much better off if those with disabilities can contribute.

But for people with disabilities to enter society fully, we must also attack stereotypes about what it means to be disabled. Part of the stigma of physical disability is associated with people’s conflation of physical and mental limitations. In fact, many people with physical disabilities actually have above average mental function. Steven Hawking, for instance, the brilliant physicist, is unable to talk, walk, or feed himself, due to progressive paralysis related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), yet he is one of the leading scholars in his field. In addition, people with less than average mental function are often successfully trained in vocational programmes to work productively. Though it is critical not to confuse physical and mental disability it is also important not to equate mental capacity with worth.

The next time you see someone with physical challenges, I hope you view them in a different light. Not only could you be in their shoes, or wheelchair, but that person also has an important contribution to make. So take an active part in advocating for better accommodation for those with disabilities – not just because it’s the right thing to do – but because it is detrimental to you and the entire nation if you don’t.

Susan Crotty is an assistant professor at the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in The National. It can be accessed here.

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