DUBAI // When Sonia al Hashimi found out that her son Saif had Down's syndrome, her initial reaction was, in her own words, "blank". "I had no clear reaction because I didn't know anything about Down's syndrome. I was blank," she said. "I had never met people with Down's syndrome before Saif." Now, Saif is 23 and Mrs al Hashimi is the president of the UAE Down Syndrome Association, which provides support for 400 families.
Founding the group in 2006 was important because it created a legally recognised entity that could promote the rights of children with special needs. It came down to a few simple truths, said Mohamed al Dabal, Saif's father, who also volunteers for the group. "They have a right to breathe the air, share the land, right to freedom of expression and speech," he said. Mrs al Hashimi said her husband's support was key. Society, by contrast, reacted "pathetically", looking at her with pity for having her first child at 21 with Down's syndrome.
Instead of seeing Saif as a burden, she taught him to be self-reliant and independent. He also taught her a few things. "I learned English for him. He was the reason I learned. I learned a language, computer, how to face people, how to work with a group, and to volunteer," she said. Before long, Saif was taking care of his siblings. He can also boast several gold medals he won at the regional Special Olympics.
"Once you teach him his rights at home, he knows how to ask for it outside," said Mrs al Hashimi. Saif wants to continue swimming, travelling and hopes that, one day, he will be in charge of the association. "I want to be the big boss of the office," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org