ABU DHABI // Major policy changes are needed before the existing federal law protecting the rights of people with special needs is properly implemented, say accessibility advocates.
Five years after the law was passed, they recommend a number of measures to help build momentum on the issue. They include the creation of a federal council and an organisation of disabled people that would work together to administer it, and a national awareness campaign to educate the public on the importance of accessibility for those in the community with special needs.
Rawhi Abdat, a psychologist at the Ministry of Social Affairs department of welfare and rehabilitation of persons with disabilities, also said the issue should be embedded in the school curriculum, to build a new awareness and a positive attitude towards the disabled.
"Promoting a positive attitude towards people who are disabled should start with young children," he said. "We want to build a new generation."
The 2006 federal law, In Respect of The Rights of People with Special Needs, made sweeping rights provisions for UAE nationals in the fields of health and rehabilitation services, education, work, general and cultural life and sport, as well as for a "qualified environment", referring to home and vehicle. The law calls for specific committees to be created in each area to oversee progress. Three years later, in December 2009, the law was amended and issued by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Ali Al Shamari is a 34-year-old Emirati customer line co-ordinator at the Emirates Identity Authority. He was injured during military training while a member of the UAE armed forces more than a decade ago.
"Not one sector meets fully the special needs for the disabled, even special places for the disabled aren't fully equipped," said Mr al Shamari. "Sadly, there are a lot of parents and families with a disabled kid and consider that kid a shame, they hide that they have a disabled kid and hide him or her at home, even if the kid needs a doctor they try to get the doctor home so the world doesn't know they have a handicapped kid, and this is real and it's happening and no one wants to talk about it."
Attitudes need to change for the disabled to feel comfortable travelling in public, said Gulshan Kavarana, founder of the Special Families Support Group in Dubai and mother of a teenage who uses a wheelchair.
"People make you feel so awkward," said Mrs Kavarana.
"It's a big struggle when people stare, it makes you feel so uncomfortable. All that has to change and hopefully it will."
Victor Pineda is an American disability rights advocate who researched the situation in the Emirates extensively while serving as a visiting scholar to the Dubai School of Government in 2009/2010.
Specifically, he studied the implementation of the 2006 law across three sectors: education, employment and transportation. He hopes to release a full report of his findings in the UAE later this year.
"I am proud of the UAE for continuously trying to bring attention to the issue," he said. "But for things to change, it will take a long-term strategy and engagement with people with disabilities, and I haven't seen that happen."
Mr Pineda suggested that the UAE establish a strong, federal council on disability to monitor the implementation of the law; one that could co-ordinate reform, build capacity across different sectors and government bodies and recommend changes as needed.
The body would include people with disabilities, to make sure that they had input into the policies and laws that affect them.
"The monitoring body should be funded to do a really good job," he said. "More research needs to be done on disability rights and policies with the participation of people with disabilities and experts."
A national disability strategy, rather than separate strategies for the disabled within the areas of education, transport and other areas, would help focus efforts, said Mohammed al Tarawneh, the Amman-based vice chairperson of the UN's committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international disability rights treaty the UAE ratified in March 2010.
"I would also like to see a disabled people's organisation, or DPO, creating pilot models for accessibility and building leaders from among people with disabilities," he said.
To achieve this, Mr al Tarawneh said the country would need a continuous awareness campaign, through television and other media, featuring people with disabilities.
"You want something to happen by trying to improve accessibility in malls, parks and other places," he said. "But if we don't see people with disabilities utilising all these things, then we're defeating the purpose."
The UAE is one of 99 countries to ratify the UN's CRPD, adopted at UN headquarters in New York in late 2006. In doing so last year the country pledged to identify and eliminate barriers to accessibility in buildings, roads, transportation systems and indoor and outdoor facilities. The ratification means that the UAE is now obligated to create an independent monitoring committee composed of people with disabilities who can assess how it is implementing the convention within its borders. That committee is still under consideration by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The government's initial report to the UN's committee is due by next March, two years after ratification. The first full report is due by 2016. Once a country ratifies the document, it is obligated to adhere to every article of the convention, said Mr al Tarawneh.
"We don't expect developments to take place within a year, or for the country to take a 360-degree turn," he said. "It will definitely take years."
The UAE is making progress on the issue, although there are many improvements to be made, said Nazim Fawzi, an adviser in the field of disability for the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The ministry is charged with monitoring the implementation of the country's disability law, managing the affairs of citizens with disabilities and supervising its public rehabilitation and care centres.
There are 3,997 disabled people - Emiratis and expats - registered in a dozen government and private-run rehabilitation and care centres. The ministry runs five of these centres.
"When the UAE signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, it showed how committed it was in the issue of disability rights," said Mr Fawzi. "Now we in the Ministry of Social Affairs are asking others to help us. These are the engineers, owners of shopping malls and hotels, the municipality and the transport authorities, among others."
There is another big step at an international level the UAE has yet to take, however, which is signing the CRPD's "optional protocol".
"It is important," said Mr al Tarawneh. "Because it gives an individual or group of individuals the right to file a complaint directly to the UN committee if they feel that their rights had been violated under the CRPD and after exhausting all legal efforts at a national level," he said.
* With files from Ramola Talwar Badam and Samar al Huneidi