x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Embrace the strengths of disabled members of society

In so many parts of the world, people with disabilities can easily fit into society. The UAE has some catching up to do.

When we talk about society at large, we think about what and especially who makes it up: men, women and children, young and old, and so on. But there is a category of people we seem to treat as an afterthought - the disabled.

When I was growing up in the UAE, it was uncommon for families to talk about a child who had Down syndrome or who is autistic. What's worse, you would never actually see these children out and about in society.

A lot has changed since then. There are more facilities offered for disabled people, and even sports programmes dedicated to them. People are slowly opening up about discussing their family members, and even asking for help in understanding how a disabled person can be integrated into society.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a phenomenal young woman who has been in a wheelchair since she was a little girl because of a bone disorder. She was comfortable in her own skin, but it was everyone around her who acted weird and didn't know or understand how to behave.

No one ever asked her what had happened, why she was in a wheelchair or how she got around. No one tried to understand her situation. She was truly a "special case", instead of being one of us.

Of course, being in a wheelchair does not define who a person is. Disabled people have accomplishments just like anyone else, and are defined by their intelligence, their education, their character, and their goals and dreams. The issue is people on the other side, and their lack of understanding, and the lack of understanding in our society as a whole.

Let's start with an obvious issue: driving and parking. If you aren't born into money, it can be tough to find transportation suitable for people with disabilities, and there are nowhere near enough parking spaces earmarked for them.

That kind of practical issue contributes to a bigger problem. A family will assume they are "protecting" a disabled person from the world by not letting them out of the house, and not allowing them to fully flourish. This can be worse for disabled girls and women who are considered the "weaker" sex anyway.

When you look at the country's infrastructure, a lot could be done to create more community spaces. Even with the current facilities, few are equipped to accommodate ramps or other disabled-friendly features.

Instead of creating community spaces that cater for everyone regardless of physical disabilities, we provide only the bare minimum. My question to society is, why do we treat such issues as an afterthought? A better plan to cater for disabled people's needs could actually help to educate others and make them more comfortable accepting people with disabilities.

Families also need to be more open and proud about disabled members. Their contributions need to be recognised.

Having been lucky enough to have travelled in Europe, I've been struck by societies that have evolved to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Disabled people are part of everyday society, riding public transport systems and present in the workplace without any form of discrimination.

In the UAE, or rather across the entire region, we seem to become awkward around people who are different from us. But not everyone is the same, and differences should be embraced.


Aida Al Busaidy is a social affairs columnist and former co-host of a Dubai television show

On Twitter: @AidaAlB