Dubai disability champion honoured for offering route to independence
Shobhika Kalra's inspiring campaign has touched lives in her native land and her adopted home
A caring campaigner putting thousands of disabled people across Dubai on the path to independence has won an international honour for her efforts.
Shobhika Kalra is so dedicated to opening up access to residents with disabilities that she has overseen the construction of more than 1,000 ramps all over the emirate in the last five years.
Through the WingsOfAngelz group she founded, Ms Falra works with the municipality, transport chiefs and store owners to pinpoint grocery shops, pharmacies, metro and bus stations and hotels that have little or no wheelchair provision and ensure they are no longer off-limits.
Now her determination to improve the lives of others is being recognised in her native India.
Her award came in the same week that the UAE and Saudi Arabia pledged to improve airport access for those with special needs, including standardising travel procedures for accompanying family members and ensuring airport staff are fully trained.
The 28-year-old is herself confined to a wheelchair after being diagnosed with a rare genetic condition, Friedreich’s ataxia disorder, which damages nervous system, disrupts muscle coordination and impairs speech, as a teenager.
She has never allowed her health setback, however, to be a roadblock to achieving her potential and is now serving as an inspiration to others facing their own personal battles.
Ms Kalra will receive the award for ‘A Woman who creates Change’ on Wednesday during Pravasi Bhartiya - or Non-Resident Indian Day - in Varanasi, northern India, which will be attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
More than 7,000 people have gathered for the three-day event, which got underway on Monday, and is organised by India's federal government with the aim of strengthening ties with Indians living overseas.
“My message is that disability is not something that can stop people,” said Ms Kalra.
“I hope this will empower other people with disabilities and help create awareness about accessibility. Ramps can help not just people with disabilities but also older people and families with children in prams.”
Ms Kalra's mission to boost accessibility shows no signs of slowing down, with the community champion recently leading a site visit to Emirates Towers Metro Station to identify areas of improvement.
Only last week, people with disabilities received a fresh boost after the Executive Committee of the Saudi-Emirati Co-ordination Council announced a seven-step strategy to further cement ties between the nations, including improving disability access at airports.
Ms Kalra is also embracing technology in order to win more support for the vital cause by launching an app which will allow people from all over the world to create an extensive disability access database.
“This could encourage people to meet up in different cities and volunteer to spot places that need ramps like we do in Dubai. We want to get more people involved,” she said.
Ms Kalra has a Master’s degree in psychology and works as an assistant to her mother who is a psychologist.
Her campaign has not only resonated with people in India, but has made an impact in neighbouring Pakistan, too.
Engineering student Rana Sikander Ali was spurred into action after hearing about Ms Kalra's bid to help others during an event at Islamabad National University.
“A student in a wheelchair in our university faced difficulties getting around and during a motivational speech, people spoke about how we can learn from her work in Dubai,” said the civil engineering student, currently on a semester break in Sharjah.
“She was on the news as well. Ramps are now being constructed in our university. This could spread to other universities in Pakistan too.”
“It was great to hear her work highlighted in my home country because the problems of the disabled don’t usually get much importance there.”
UAE firm Mister Baker is among the outlets that have pledged to improve disability access after meeting with Ms Kalra.
She pointed out that the narrow width and slope of a metal sheet doubling as a ramp made it impossible for her to enter one of the chain's stores in Karama, Dubai.
“Shobhika first reached out on our Facebook page and said that while she liked our shop, she couldn’t enter the store,” said Tushar Fotedar, director of Mister Baker.
“Once we met, it was very apparent that she could not. I felt very sad and upset. We had not considered that someone on a wheelchair would not be able to access the store on their own.
“We have come to learn that it is not as simple as placing a ramp. Some stores like in Jumeirah required another design and we have built a separate entrance. We just need to find creative solutions.”
Isphana Al Khatib, director of Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs, said Ms Kalra’s award in India serves as an inspiration to others.
“It’s very encouraging because it validates and puts the spotlight on her effort," Ms Al Khatib said.
“The advocacy of a person with determination is being acknowledged. Her voice is being heard and it will touch the lives of people not just in Dubai but in other parts of the world.
“The award is not an end because more work needs to be done. But through this, real change can come about.”
Ms Kalra hopes her award will encourage others to throw open their doors wider for people with special needs.
“I was very nervous when I first started because I had to explain to people what is a ramp and why it was needed.
“I just like to meet and talk to people because I think there is a need for change.”
Updated: January 22, 2019 02:35 PM