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Without this Human Wealth, a Nation Limits Itself

Published on: June 2009​
Genre: Education​ Category: Op eds​
"The development of man is the foundation on which a nation is built. This building cannot be considered complete without first developing the citizens, who are regarded as human wealth, constantly giving."

These words from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, illustrate well the connections between the people of the UAE, the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the UAE’s Federal Law 29. As of today, 139 nations, including the UAE, have signed the Convention. Now is the time for the UAE to lead nations in implementing these articles, for the benefit of this nation, its people and the world.

According to the UN, "the Convention… takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as ‘objects’ of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as ‘subjects’ with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives".

For its part, the UAE’s Federal Law No 29 of 2006, created opportunities to integrate disabled persons into the mainstream of society. The law mandates meaningful partnerships across sectors and regulates the construction of accessible infrastructure. It also provides people with disabilities in the UAE access to education and employment opportunities.

For the past decade I have been working on developing the Convention for all people around the world who, like me, live with some type of disability. I was born in Venezuela, a country rich in petroleum, but poor in opportunities for people with disabilities.

My mother sought new opportunities and moved our family to California where my life began to blossom. This experience marked my commitment to disability rights and policy change and furthered my professional development in this field.

Often considered a burden on the community, disabled persons are regularly isolated and stigmatised by society, while the gifts these citizens could give their communities are wasted. Studies prove that progressive public policies towards those with special needs benefit all citizens.

Recently the United Nations, the World Bank and many public and private agencies have incorporated disability considerations into project planning, design, and application. Implementing the UN articles and Federal Law 29 would mirror these progressive actions, and would significantly improve access to social, educational and employment opportunities.

As a country that is continuing to lead the world in new and innovative construction, it cannot be understated how much more cost-effective it is to "build in" accessibility rather than "bolt it on".

Education is obviously a key element in the development of any nation, yet few disabled children in the UAE attend accredited schools that offer a certified high-school diploma; this leaves them few viable options once they outgrow their special needs centre.

The human impact of this is huge. A young Emirati I met, though fluent in English and Arabic, and very smart, could not obtain a job since his entire education was at a special needs school. He has no mental disabilities, only physical ones – he uses crutches. This is a huge loss for the UAE of human potential.

Fortunately, Dr Hanif Hassan, the former Minister of Education, began an innovative pilot programme of inclusion that will place a cohort of special needs students across 10 public schools.

Dr Hassan understood that without enabling these children to attend public school, it would be nearly impossible for them to feel part of and fully participate in their society. Such integration only enriches this nation and its people; it is a vital step forward, but it cannot be the last. Providing work opportunities and education for people with special needs is not enough, we need their active involvement in the decisions that affect them. We need their voices and their vision and we need them to become self-sufficient and to contribute to their community.

Many countries have started this process and the UAE can too. This, according to indicators by the World Bank, brings benefits to the disabled individual, to their household and to various sectors of government.

Sheikh Mohammed’s book, My Vision – Challenges in the Race for Excellence, shows how Dubai has been an example of extraordinary development based on excellent management, teamwork and timely decision-making.

I am hopeful that all of these will again come together in the implementation of Federal Law No 29 and the ratification of the UN Convention Articles.

People with disabilities in the UAE are the untapped human wealth sitting on our doorstep. When their talent is tapped, this country will be much closer to Sheikh Mohammed’s wish: "I want everyone in this country to benefit and to be of benefit at the same time."

Victor Pineda is a visiting scholar at the Dubai School of Government.

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

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