DUBAI // Marilena di Coste's reasons for becoming an advocate for disabled people's rights are deeply personal.
"Italians, like most families in the Arab world, have close family ties," said Mrs di Coste, 41. "My aunt passed away five years ago at the age of 60. She suffered from multiple sclerosis and was wheelchair-bound for most of her life."
The Dubai woman's experience with her aunt helped her to understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities and promote their "right to fulfilment, autonomy and happiness".
"I've seen a lack of accessibility and a certain stigma attached to disabled people," Mrs di Coste said.
Originally from the south of Italy, she lived for 11 years in Ireland where she obtained a higher certificate in advocacy at the Institute of Technology in Sligo.
Seven of those years were spent working with agencies offering services to people with disabilities.
After moving to the UAE in 2008, Mrs di Coste trained social workers and disability officers in advocacy at the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care, Special Needs and Minors' Affairs.
The Abu Dhabi Government agency provides educational and rehabilitation services for people with disabilities.
In January, Mrs di Coste obtained a licence from the Dubai Department of Economic Development to establish the Butterfly Foundation, a non-profit organisation that will provide information and support for people with disabilities and their families.
The foundation will be fully operational in October.
"I'm very eager to start," she said. "The best part is to help people in the community."
People with disabilities need to be recognised for their abilities, values and major contribution to society, Mrs di Coste said.
Although disability information is accessible in many ways, including the internet, direct inquiry and government agencies, she said: "The Butterfly Foundation will reduce the amount of time spent researching services available by providing specific information.
"We hope to make a huge difference in trying to get the best results by helping the disabled to assert their rights, and providing the right information."
Amran Al Sharhan, 27, a government employee in Abu Dhabi who is Mrs di Coste's business partner, said he was drawn to her passion in the field.
"It was the way she spoke about her work in Ireland and in Europe, and her determination to achieve her objectives here in the UAE," Mr Al Sharhan said. "The Butterfly Foundation was her idea and I'm here to support her in the country."
He said the foundation would serve as a link between the disabled and the government and private sectors.
"We also wish to create a venue where people with disabilities and their families can meet and discuss their expectations, share their feelings, combat isolation and lower their stress levels," Mrs di Coste said.
She said she was "incredibly encouraged" by initiatives in the Emirates for the disabled. These included the Community Development Authority's El Kayt programme for the training and employment of people with disabilities, and the "School for All" project by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social Affairs to support students with special needs.
Mrs di Coste also praised Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority's commitment to making the Dubai Metro accessible, and the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing's special needs tourism.
"There are serious talents among people with disabilities that need to be identified and there are a lot of foundations doing a great job in making their lives better and for them to achieve their dreams," Mr Al Sharhan said.
"I welcome the idea of expatriates working together with us in contributing to society."