x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 February 2018

Abu Dhabi through the eyes of an extraordinary teen

My experience with my rehabilitating sister showed me another side of Abu Dhabi

Those with special needs can find accessible places to spend time in the city. Getty
Those with special needs can find accessible places to spend time in the city. Getty

Anyone dealing with young teenagers will know that gleaning any sort of detail from them can be like getting blood out of a stone. In my experience, the key is to wait, patiently, until they are ready to open up. What you don’t do is follow my example and go the direct route, asking questions like “what have you learnt from your holiday?”, expecting an answer.

I don’t know what it is, but that question seems to trigger an immediate shutdown, at least in my world. The eyes glaze, the steady laboured breathing mirrors a comatose patient, and a robotic non-insightful response emerges through pursed lips: “I don’t know.” It is infuriating because I want to see Abu Dhabi through the eyes of someone who has special needs.

The 14-year-old in question is my sister, Mona. We are in the car heading back to Abu Dhabi from a Yas Island amusement park when I pose the question. We still have a fair way to go, so instead of pushing the point, I decide to tell her what I had learnt.

I tell her that prior to her arrival from Australia two months ago, I was worried about how she would fare. Fresh from another leg surgery on the account of a pre-existing physical condition, Abu Dhabi was thought to be the ideal location to hang out with family and engage in some rehab walking – albeit on crutches.

Prior to her visit I must admit that I had my concerns about how disability friendly she would find the city. But I gave it a shot and helped devise a schedule that allowed for about 90 minutes of walking a day. However, our trip to the Tourist Club area to dine at our favoured Ethiopian restaurant, Bonne Anne, was akin to walking in a minefield. I was shocked by how high the pavements sit above the road, that zebra crossings are virtually non-existent, and queries regarding ramps are met with bewildered looks.

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Things got better once the program moved from old-school Abu Dhabi to the newer and more revitalised precincts.

The Corniche is relatively easy if you go there when it’s quiet. The number of resting benches is impressive – something I usually take for granted. Then of course there are the malls; all of them big, family-friendly and well-lit with acres of space. I used to disparage the manic shopping culture here, but walking through Abu Dhabi, Al Wahda and Yas malls, I now have a deeper appreciation of them. Each provides a safe place – particularly at night – for families and young children to let off some steam and, yes, even exercise.

Perhaps what surprised me most, were the kind-hearted gestures by strangers and the pointed questions that only young people can ask each other. One 10-year-old boy stopped to quiz Mona at Marina Mall.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Surgery,” she replies.

“Hmmm…. I hope you get better sister,” he says and scurries off to rejoin his curious parents.

Of course, with the UAE being a melting pot of cultures, not everyone is on the same page when it comes to the sensitivity handbook. At the aforementioned Yas Island amusement park, one surly staff member refused to let Mona on a rollercoaster and accused her of donning a fake leg.

She was understandably irate and demanded to go home, only to be convinced to return to the ride by the sympathetic manager who apologised for her colleague’s lack of professionalism. Her gentle approach and encouraging advice to my sister to keep persevering was appreciated – by me, at least.

“I didn’t like that,” my sister says when we talked about it on the drive home. Indeed, I said, that staff member was ignorant at best. “No,” Mona says firmly. “It was the woman. I didn’t really like what she said.”

I kept quiet, confused, but with a hunch that I might finally get some idea of how she felt.

“You know what’s the worst thing you can do to a kid who is recovering from something? Is to make them feel that you are sorry for them,” she says. “You guys think we don’t know that. But we can tell by the way you talk to us. You think it makes us feel better but it doesn’t, so stop it.”

And with that advice ringing in my ears, we made our way home.