x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Desert Group project to employ special needs staff a success

Five years on, a corporate social responsibility project to hire men with special needs has paid off for a company and changed the lives of the men.

June 12, Abdullah Yousif, a special needs employee of the Desert Group, packs small pots at the company's nursery in Khawaneej. June 12, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/ The National)
June 12, Abdullah Yousif, a special needs employee of the Desert Group, packs small pots at the company's nursery in Khawaneej. June 12, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/ The National)

DUBAI // In a remote part of Dubai, far from the bright lights and shiny skyscrapers, lies the Desert Group nursery - a place that has transformed the lives of 29 young men with mental disabilities.

It was back in 2006 that the company began a corporate social responsibility initiative to provide jobs for the mentally impaired young men, who are mostly Emirati.

The project's first participants struggled with the most basic personal care, such as bathing and using the bathroom. The simplest task, such as transferring a plant from one pot to another, or walking in a straight line between the rows of plants, was an enormous challenge.

Mohammed Haneef, the general manager, recalls the first nine who were hired.

"In the early days it was quite difficult to handle," he said. "I had to do everything myself, from running them around to making their breakfast. Until we got our trained staff, I was finding it very difficult. I wasn't used to their way of understanding and they weren't used to me."

The initiative has come a long way since then. The company soon hired two trained specialists to guide and train the men, providing them with speech and behavioural therapy. Eventually their efforts picked up the support of the Ministry of Social Affairs' Community Development Authority (CDA).

Mr Haneef admits he had reservations about the project initially, before the dedicated carers were there to take control.

"I was afraid that if customers came, I would lose business because their behaviour may not be good for the customers," he said. "Now, it's totally different. The men respect the customers, they know the names, the prices of plants. It's amazing."

Five years later, the experiment is proving such a success he hopes other companies will follow suit. The project has also come under the scrutiny of a British University in Dubai doctoral student.

Nadera al Borno, who is earning a PhD in special education, spent three months conducting interviews and observing the men at work. She has concluded that not only have the men's lives been enriched by their jobs, they have also boosted the company's productivity.

She found the men, aged between 22 and 30, were carrying out around 40 per cent of the work.

The effect this had on the individuals was vast, she said.

"Because they were given responsibility, they had higher self esteem and confidence," she said. "This is very important for people with special needs, as they often feel incapable of doing anything when given jobs."

The expert training they had while at work contributed to their job satisfaction.

"It was very important that there were trained people to guide the process," she said. "There was a very low rate of absence days which shows how big a part of their lives work became."

The research was part of an agreement between the university and the CDA, which is attempting to boost employment among the UAE's special needs population. Ms al Borno also hopes her findings about the Desert Group project will encourage other companies to hire accordingly.

"It's making a difference that other people are now following this example," she said.

Sheikh Maktoum Bin Butti Al Maktoum, chief executive of social care at the CDA, said: "The insights gathered by Ms Borno during her research can support our efforts towards comprehensive social development and inclusion of people with disability."

Back at the nursery, the men have forged a sense of community - referring to the other members of their team as family.

Even on their days off many ask to come and work, claiming it is less boring than staying at home. A survey reveals no complaints, rather just praise from those who say the nursery has changed their lives.

The mental age of the men ranges from four to 15, some more challenged than others, with mental disabilities including Down's syndrome. Most have been picked up basic skills at either the Rashid Pediatric Centre or the Dubai Centre for Special Needs.

Ibrahim Ali Mohammed Ali, one of the specialists who takes care of the team, helps the men develop those skills on the job.

"All of them now know the meaning of work and have a sense of confidence and self respect," he said. "They can feel that even with disabilities, things are possible."

In the safe environment of the nursery, surrounded by colleagues who also have special needs, Mr Ali says the men are able progrss more quickly, experiencing camaraderie as they compete to please their bosses.

"They're learning from each other," he explained. "Not feeling left out."

Another big change for the men is that they are earning a salary - which builds a sense of purpose but helps them contribute to their family life at home.

"Many were very much neglected at home before they did this," said Mr Haneef. "Now, they feel important and they're becoming important to their parents now as they're earning money for them."

mswan@thenational.ae