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Equal rights for people with disabilities

Equal rights for people with disabilities

Published on: September 2015​
Author: Sanah Sheikh
Genre: UAE Studies​ Category: Op eds​

Equal rights for people with disabilities – are we doing enough?

There is no doubt that over the last ten 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 which stated the equal rights of people with disabilities. This was quickly followed by the UAE signing and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities which conferred on the nation the obligation to promote the human rights of people with disabilities. Moreover, this prioritisation of the rights of people with disabilities is also reflected in a number of strategic development plans including the UAE Vision 2021 and the Dubai Plan 2021. On paper there is much to be applauded. But to what extent have these relatively new laws and policies actually improved the lives of people with disabilities?
The most dramatic change is unquestionably the momentum gained by the Inclusion movement. Lobbying by educators and parents of children with special education needs (SEN) has resulted in the inclusion of children with SEN in general classrooms 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 amongst all stakeholders – teachers, parents, policy makers, regulators and inspection bodies – to improve practices and ways of working.
Improving access to employment opportunities for people with disabilities is also rising on the national agenda. There is an increasing recognition that the right opportunity with the right support can enable people with disabilities to 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 opportunities 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 approximately 40 people with disabilities and are a regular exhibiter at the annual ABILITIESme conference. Similarly, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) reportedly employ 7 people with disabilities and have modified their facilities to make them accessible, for example, by providing accessible entrances and restrooms and special equipment to help staff with disabilities perform their duties.
Public Services in Dubai are also stepping up to the mark, particularly with the launch of Dubai’s ‘My community….a city for everyone’ initiative which aims to make Dubai disability-friendly by 2020.  For example, Dubai Municipality reported that they are 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 the used of adapted taxi vans that are wheelchair accessible for physically disabled people, and DEWA has taught its staff sign language and started offering video chat with call centre staff.
Clearly these achievements should be celebrated, but at the same time the UAE must continue to challenge itself to do better…and to do more.  Cultural and social attitudes still represent the foremost barrier to the inclusion of people with disabilities. There remains in the UAE, and across the Middle East, a certain prejudice associated with disability which is most apparent in the insensitive terminology used not only by individual members of the community but also by family members, health care professionals and the media. A fear of rejection means that people with disabilities are often confined to spending their time at home or at special centres and this results in a community that is very much secluded, isolated and living on the fringes of society.
Attitudes also tend to be characterised by misconceptions and lack of understanding, particularly with respect to intellectual disabilities such as Down’s syndrome. Additionally, there also tends to be a stigma associated with mental health conditions, for example depression, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder which is particularly concerning because mental health is one of the top five health issues in the UAE. Moreover, disabled women in particular often face multiple disadvantage and by virtue of being both female and disabled experience greater restrictions on their autonomy, mobility and access to educational and employment opportunities.
Changing attitudes is therefore key if the UAE is serious about its commitments to people with disabilities. There is a clear need for education and engagement that builds awareness and understanding about the needs and lived experiences of people with disabilities. Education needs to start at a young age which means that teachers and schools can play an important role in shaping and modelling attitudes. There is also a need for disability specific campaigns, focusing for example on mental health and/or Down’s syndrome in order to challenge the lack of understanding, ignorance and negative assumptions about people with these disabilities. Given the particularly debilitating impact of negative family attitudes, there also needs to be more emotional and psychological support for parents of children with disabilities so that they are better able to cope and don’t resort to seclusion and isolation. Finally, there 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 people with disabilities can have a remarkable impact.
Change is definitely in the air but if the UAE is to move forward then there is an urgent need to reconceptualise disability and to 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 a commitment and contribution from every member of society.
To read more about the social model of disability please see:
Oliver, M. (1990). The individual and social models of disability [online]. Available at:
Finkelstein, S. (2004). ‘Representing disability’, in J. Swain, S. French, C. Barnes & C. Thomas (eds). Disabling barriers enabling environments. 2nd. ed. London: Sage. Ch. 2.

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