There is a legal framework to integrate people with disabilities into society, but the problem is that the rest of us are too often blind. We are blind, that is, to the way every element in society – not just government but big companies, small shopkeepers and individuals - must pitch in to make integration a reality.
Integration for disabled people is a job for us all
The real problem for people with special needs in the UAE is that almost everyone else is blind. Blind, that is, to what "normal" people take for granted. Things as common as a cluttered pavement can create formidable challenges for those in wheelchairs, people who really are blind and others with special needs.
We hope that The National's reporting on this subject this week will help to convince our readers that the time has come for every part of our society to begin seeing this issue - and act on it.
The most common attitude towards those with special needs is indifference: no awareness, no opinion, no concern.
This is a tragedy, although mainly an invisible one. Better access is not simply a matter of social justice, or only an issue of compassion for the disabled and their caregivers. We all have a strong interest in giving our economy and society better access to the skills and potential of those with special needs. Nobody should have to languish in isolation, out of sight and out of mind because buildings lack ramps, schools are not flexible or potential employers are disdainful.
Around the world, governments have moved towards equality of access, and the UAE is no exception. A comprehensive 2006 law guarantees, among other things, a range of services and assistance for Emiratis with special needs. And a ramp built under that law, to take one simple example, will serve everyone who needs it, not just Emiratis.
Gradually, the federal government and individual emirates have changed policies and practices to respect the letter and the spirit of the 2006 law. Schools are integrating students with learning disabilities, for example, although at varying rates. But the process has been slow and costly.
We would certainly like to see a faster pace of change, but the most pressing need does not directly involve government. Rather, what is needed is a broad change in the public's attitude towards those with special needs. Individuals, corporations, schools (public and private), small shops - we all have a role in building a new way of thinking.
The Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs, among other government bodies, has tried to create awareness of the problem, but there is still a long way to go. One example: people with limited mobility may welcome discounted taxi fares, but what they really need is more taxis modified to accommodate them.
True integration is a social goal; every part of society must contribute if we are to reach it.