Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 3 April 2020

'Why do I have to be a superhero or a victim?': This Dubai disability awareness trainer is hoping to change the way we approach inclusion

Yahye Siyad is social advocate for change. Here's how he plans to implement it

Yahye Siyad, founder of Inclusive Horizons, a consultancy service for accessibility, inclusion and inspiration coaching in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Yahye Siyad, founder of Inclusive Horizons, a consultancy service for accessibility, inclusion and inspiration coaching in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

People with disabilities don’t need help. We need support,” Yahye Siyad says determinedly. He was born blind, into an impoverished community in Somalia and, for the first few years of his life, his prospects seemed bleak, he says. Then things started looking up, when, at age 7, he was offered a place at a school for visually impaired children in Bahrain.

With the strength of a good education behind him, at age 17, Siyad moved to the UK, where he spent the next 10 years studying at university, finishing off with a master’s in international HR management, throughout which he did a thesis on diversity and inclusion. He also discovered a passion and talent for Goalball – a team sport for visually impaired people – and represented Team GB at the European championships in 2008.

Today, Siyad, 36, lives in the UAE with his wife and daughter, working in learning and development at Tanfeeth, a fully owned subsidiary of Emirates NBD, while also passionately raising awareness about disabilities, accessibility and inclusion. His consultancy and social advocacy platform, Inclusive Horizons, seeks not only to raise awareness and start conversations on inclusion, but also to offer an advisory service to companies on how they can be more accessible for people with disabilities.

“The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [UNCRPD] has a slogan that puts it perfectly: ‘Nothing about us, without us,’” explains Siyad. “This means that nothing should be chosen on behalf of people with disabilities without their input and involvement. After all, how can anybody without disabilities know what we need?”

Yahye Siyad plans to to build a centre where people can experience what it’s like to be blind or deaf, or to have another disability. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Yahye Siyad plans to to build a centre where people can experience what it’s like to be blind or deaf, or to have another disability. Chris Whiteoak / The National

A common issue is that the solutions do not fulfil everyone’s needs. For example, Siyad references a lift that had Braille on the buttons, but no auditory announcement to let the user know when they were at the right floor. Similarly, he recalls staying in a hotel that proudly offered two accessible rooms.

“It’s always thought of from a wheelchair perspective, but what about air-conditioning units that a visually impaired person can use? What about a light that flashes when someone is at the door for deaf people? While the thought is there to offer support, the activation is often lacking in detail and accuracy, meaning it often isn’t helpful.” As Siyad points out, adaptations such as these only further isolate individuals with disabilities.

According to the UN, there are one billion people on this planet with disabilities. That is 15 per cent of the population. However, some attempts at providing accessible services can only single people out more. For instance, with “special” rooms. And yet, when these are not furnished properly, people still need to ask for help. What is needed is to empower a person with disabilities to not need help at all.

The more mainstream inclusion is, the easier it is to be understood and the easier it is for a person with a disability to feel confident that they are a contributing member of society, rather than a burden

Yahye Siyad, founder of Inclusive Horizons

“Normalising issues is the only way [to achieve true] inclusion,” says Siyad. “We need to move away from the medical model of disability to the social model. Disability is part of the social fabric … I am a person – with a disability. The more mainstream inclusion is, the easier it is to be understood and the easier it is for a person with a disability to feel confident that they are a contributing member of society, rather than a burden.”

The UAE is a country that understands this. Back in 2013, Dubai announced it planned to be disability-friendly by 2020. More recently, in 2019, a countrywide campaign called “Bee The Change” was launched, encouraging companies to employ people of determination. This year new inclusivity guidelines have been revealed by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority for Dubai’s schools. This is to name only a few. After the Year of Tolerance in 2019, inclusion and accessibility are high on the agenda here. However, it is still relatively new and there is much to be learnt from other countries, says Siyad.

“I am a travel addict. I have travelled to 52 countries, mostly alone. In my experience, Norway, Sweden and the UK have been the top three in terms of accessibility. They have normalised the discourse of disability and there are reasonable adjustments to public spaces, such as safe road crossings, accessible public transport and schemes within schools and the workplace and entertainment. In the UK, I love going to the cinema. Here there is nothing in place to allow me and other visually impaired people to enjoy the cinema independently.

“In this part of the world, there is often a protectionist approach. [People say:] ‘We need to drive them around, or hide them at home. They need our help to express themselves.’ But this is counterproductive, and it puts us into a bubble, where we will ­always be trapped and always need help. Contrastingly, when people with disabilities are involved in the process, they create real solutions, rather than imaginary solutions.”

Yahye Siyad meets us in his favourite spot at Dubai Marina. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Yahye Siyad meets us in his favourite spot at Dubai Marina. Chris Whiteoak / The National

While people with disabilities often resent being thought of as helpless victims – of society and of their disability – well-meaning campaigns can often take it to another equally unrealistic extreme by branding them as “superheroes”, which can be patronising, particularly for older children and adults. “Why do I have to be either a superhero or a victim?”, asks Siyad. “Why can’t I be accepted as just being a normal person? Like everyone, I have moments when I am inspiring, but I also have moments where I feel tired and exhausted by it all.

“If we are victims, it goes back to the old way of thinking and the ‘elephant in the room’ that nobody wants to talk about or see. If we are superheroes, it becomes a PR stunt – we become a statistic at a conference showing what people of disabilities are capable of. We don’t want to be either. We need to be taken out of both ends of the spectrum and put in the middle with everyone else.”

Siyad is already a well-known expert in the area of inclusion and a certified awareness trainer for the UNCRPD, but he has bigger dreams for the accessibility landscape of the UAE. One is to build a centre where people can experience what it’s like to be blind or deaf, or to have another disability. Other plans involve introducing adjustments that make it easier for people to get around safely. On a personal level, Siyad has a book on the art of resilience in the making and hopes to do a PhD in inclusion and accessibility.

Why can’t I be accepted as just being a normal person? Like everyone, I have moments when I am inspiring, but I also have moments where I feel tired and exhausted by it all

“One lesson that my time in the UK taught me is that the best gift you can give someone is their independence. Not care, not attention, not a special status … It’s about giving a person the opportunity to do their own laundry, to have a bank account, to do things for themselves online, to take part in standard education and workplaces and to be able to provide for their families.

He does not want to see more “special” services and systems put in place. “We want reasonable adjustments so we can use the services and systems that others use. At Tanfeeth, 32 of the 3,000 employees have a disability. This is a much higher ratio than in most companies … There is an untapped workforce there.”

And if you aren’t sure what adjustments are needed to make your building, event or product accessible for people with disabilities, Inclusive Horizons can help. “People often have the right intention, but they have the wrong ‘how’. Over-protection and over-helping leads to incompetent disabled people. That’s the old way of thinking. So much more can be done. This is why I launched Inclusive Horizons – to change some of that. Not just as an individual but as an expert. I can be part of the conversation and can help find new solutions.”

Updated: March 19, 2020 05:18 PM

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