x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Regular people, in wheelchairs or otherwise, lead the way

From Canada to the UAE, the work of those who fight for better facilities for the disabled should be given greater importance.

She always called close to the end of the day. When I heard her distinctive, slightly gravelly voice on the other end of the line, I knew the conversation would inevitably be lengthy and involve some sort of wrong that Mrs Jones wanted to right.

Bette Jones was an elderly woman who had multiple sclerosis that had progressed to the point where she had to use a scooter to get around. I was a reporter on my first daily newspaper job, working in a small town in south-western Ontario in Canada. Bette was always feisty, but the endless barriers she had to overcome to enjoy her life had sparked an outrage in her. She made it her mission to expose the lack of accessibility in every corner of her city, and after we met on an initial story, she decided that I would be the one to help her do it.

Today The National launches a three-part series examining the state of accessibility for the disabled in the UAE, highlighting some of the people who are working hard to make things better. I have thought about Bette many times over the past few weeks as I edited stories from reporters who were working on the project: about all the small battles that Bette won, paving the way for others to have a better life.

Bette could be funny and exasperating, and she was tireless, like most unlikely activists who are forced into action out of necessity. I remember a brouhaha at the little local theatre when her scooter could not be accommodated. The bathrooms at the theatre were also too small, as were many across town.

I had thousands of assignments during my three years at that paper. More than a decade later, my most vivid memories are of me trailing behind Bette's scooter, my notebook and camera bag in hand as she pointed out various obstacles. I recall malls and sidewalks without ramps, embarrassing lack of facilities at government buildings and once, in a cold, light drizzle, Bette demonstrating an impassable railway crossing.

Every city in the world has people like Bette, who out of necessity fight to make change happen for themselves and others like them. Our series introduces us to just a few of the Emiratis and expatriates who are striving to achieve that change in the UAE, in ways big and small.

People like Haidar Taleb, who famously traversed all seven emirates last year on his solar-powered wheelchair and helps hundreds of disabled people access recreation areas and job training through his position as the general manager for the Al Thiqa Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah; Ali al Shamari, a customer coordinator at the Emirates Identity Authority who walks with a cane after a military injury, and who is unafraid to say that not everyone in the country understands the needs of the disabled; and Gulshan Kavarana, whose struggle to care for a daughter with a disability led to the formation of Special Families Support Group, with more that 200 families participating in four emirates.

Western countries are arguably further ahead when it comes to providing facilities for the disabled - and even their efforts still fall terribly short. In the UAE, the situation is also woeful. It's not just about building ramps to buildings, including auditory cues at crosswalks or providing accessible taxis, although those basic provisions are generally lacking.

It is about getting a child properly diagnosed and into a programme where he or she can grow and be challenged. Disabled children need to be integrated into regular classrooms, with specially trained teachers providing them support and an encouraging learning environment. Disabled young people also need assistance at the postsecondary level so some of the country's brightest minds can earn graduate degrees.

The Government and corporations have to make a commitment to hire people with disabilities, for the good of the country just as much as because it is the right thing to do. And negative social attitudes that still exist towards those with special needs in the UAE and the wider Middle East need to be challenged.

The country owes it to its disabled residents to make sure they can access parks, museums, hotels, malls, public transport, sidewalks and roads, and the Ministry of Social Affairs is trying to make that happen. Meanwhile, regular people who possess an unforgettable spirit, like Bette Jones, serve as passionate and persistent fighters for justice, demanding to be seen and heard. The world is better off for their efforts.