At the age of 27, after years of struggling to hail cabs and negotiate Abu Dhabi's busy roads, Hani Mohammed Yousif finally found out how to apply for a driving licence six months ago. Having passed his test, he is now car hunting. In Dubai, Nada al Bustani, 39, is trying to find out how she can do the same.
Mr Yousif and Ms al Bustani are wheelchair users. Their attempts to find clear instructions on how a disabled person can obtain a driving licence highlight the need for a central source of information about such services, they maintain. "People with disabilities need one source where they can obtain the right information," said Ms al Bustani, an Emirati who works as a corporate social responsibility manager for a bank. "Until you find someone in the situation or make enough noise and people feel sorry for you, then you don't know." After receiving conflicting information about how to obtain a licence, she gave up trying two years ago, Ms al Bustani said.
The Roads and Transport Authority's licensing department in Dubai now provides a service to brief customers on the process, including the extra documentation and clearances required from a disabled driver. The path to getting a licence was challenging for Mr Yousif, a Sudanese who was born and raised in the UAE. He has used a wheelchair since suffering spinal damage at the age of 11 in a car accident. He abandoned his first attempt, in 2007, because he received conflicting information about the car he would need for his lessons. "I was told I needed to have a modified car to learn in before I could apply for driving lessons, but I could not buy a car without a licence," he said.
Two years later, a business contact heard about Mr Yousif's desire to drive and provided details on the process and the location of a driving school that had modified cars. Mr Yousif, a banker, finally began the application process, which led him to the Emirates Driving Company in Mussafah, and, soon after, his licence. Now he faces the task of buying a car and acquiring accessible parking outside his city-centre apartment block. The UAE passed a Disability Act in 2006, to protect the rights of people with disabilities and special needs. Since then, there have been efforts to make public and private-sector services and buildings more accessible, but disabled users say the level of success varies. Victor Pineda, an expert in disability policy, planning and regional development, is half-way through a one-year study of the implementation of the law.
A visiting scholar at the Dubai School of Government, who also uses a wheelchair, said his research so far suggested there had been consistent and "good-spirited" efforts to improve accessibility. However, he said, people with disabilities seemed unsure of how the law was being implemented and where to direct suggestions for improvements or address issues. He suggested more research should be done on disability rights and policies, in conjunction with UAE universities and local people with disabilities. "People with disabilities have more knowledge of barriers than academics looking at it from the outside," he said. "You create that research so you can start finding out what percentage of buildings are inaccessible and fail to meet international codes."
Mr Pineda also suggested the establishment of a national council on disabilities made up of Emiratis with disabilities and other UAE-based experts. Ms al Bustani said everyday tasks such as withdrawing cash from an ATM could be a headache because many are too high for her to access. The best ones, she and Mr Yousif agreed, are generally found in the Emirates' newer malls where facilities are generally very good, with low ramps, generous disabled parking, accessible bathrooms, elevators and large open spaces in shops and walkways. But other "accessible" buildings, Ms al Bustani said, still present problems. "There are some buildings with ramps but they are so steep I cannot use them on my own," she said. "There is a list of hotels considered to be accessible to wheelchair users in Dubai, but at one hotel I visited, it had a ramp but the carpet was so thick that in my manual chair I could not push myself around."
Hotels said they had taken steps to be more accessible. The Monarch hotel in Dubai has a room especially designed for disabled access, said Yvonne Luedeke, the hotel's director of communications. The room has a wide door, smooth floors and wheelchair accessible bathrooms, she said. At the Beach Rotana Hotel in Abu Dhabi, there are two suites for disabled guests, and two others are being converted. Cinemas, too, could be a problem, Ms al Bustani said. At one Dubai cinema deemed accessible, she had to enter on a ramp used to transport the rubbish bins, she said. Another had a good ramp but no space for her chair. Ms al Bustani must always be accompanied there by her brother, who lifts her into a seat while staff fold away her chair. Without a driving licence, Ms al Bustani is reliant on her family's driver. He drops her at the entrance of buildings because some designated parking spaces are not wide enough for her to manoeuvre herself in and out of the vehicle.
For the most part, Mr Yousif gets around the capital in his manual wheelchair, which can involve travelling on roads facing oncoming traffic because kerbs are sometimes not low enough to negotiate and the ramps may be blocked by parked cars. He lives directly opposite his workplace and rarely needs to rely on taxi drivers, who, he said, rarely seem pleased to see him. "Perhaps they think I will need a lot of help to get into the car so it will take too much time," he said. "It is not true, but even if it was, they should not be that way." Despite the barriers, Mr Yousif and Ms al Bustani agreed progress was slowing being made. "Things have definitely improved," Ms al Bustani said. "From when I was a child things have changed, and are still changing."