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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

UAE Portrait of a Nation: One man's tale of disability and absolute determination

Abdullah Al Zaabi sat school exams in his hospital bed and was carried from car to home. Now he fights to ensure others have better lives

Abdullah Al Zaabi is helping to empower people with disabilities after refusing to be held back by his own health battles. Antonie Robertson/The National
Abdullah Al Zaabi is helping to empower people with disabilities after refusing to be held back by his own health battles. Antonie Robertson/The National

Inspirational Abdullah Al Zaabi made sure disability wouldn't be the final chapter of his story.

The 34-year-old writer has been a wheelchair user for most of his life after being diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive degenerative disorder, at the age of six.

But rather than be defeated by his condition, Abdullah saw it as another obstacle to be overcome.

Not only has he fulfilled his ambitions of carving out a professional writing career - he pens articles for the Arabic newspaper Al Roeya - he has now set his mind on completing a master's degree in computer and information science.

If that was not enough, he also heads up his own charitable initiative, aimed at empowering disabled people.

“I work a full five-day week and I am pursuing a master’s degree in computer and information science," says Abdullah, speaking at his home in Ras Al Khaimah.

“It has been a continuous struggle to convince myself that I can do it, especially after maintaining good health conditions until suffering sudden relapses that sent me back to the hospital,” says Abdullah.

Abdullah was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe type of muscular dystrophy after his mother grew concerned about weaknesses in his feet.

The genetic condition causes muscle degeneration and can begin at a young age.

“I was able to walk until the age of ten. I used to fall and one of my family members would help to stand again. I then started using a wheelchair. It was not an electric wheelchair at that time,” he said.

Abdullah said there was a lack understanding and support for people with disabilities when he was growing up.

“Growing up with a muscular disorder, many people were not paying much attention to those with disabilities or how they can become a contributing member to the community.

"For instance, there were not easy access for people with disabilities or disabled bays positioned near entrance points. Such facilities were not available, even in schools,” says Abdullah.

Illustrating some of the challenges he faced during his studies, Abdullah said: “My mother used to carry me from the car to my chair in the class room. During high school examinations, I stayed in the hospital for around 12 days and a committee would come to the hospital to give me my examination papers and supervise me during the test period.”

Abdullah, who achieved an overall overage of 90.3 per cent in high school, said that his mother stood by his side throughout these trying years.

After high school, he suffered a number of problems related to his respiratory system. In 2009, he was placed in intensive care for two months and had to start using breathing aids thereafter.

A low point swiftly became a turning point for Abdullah, who became more motivated than ever not to allow his health troubles to hold him back from reaching his goals.

“When I came back home after being in the hospital for two months, I became more motivated. I knew of several people who suffered the same disease and could not cope up with it or find a purpose in life,” he says.

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Despite his steely determination, he admits there were times he felt his ambitions would be dashed.

“I was worried about the idea of being attached to the respiratory machine and not being able to fulfil my dream to become a writer."

While people with disabilities still face any hurdles in their daily lives, from getting a good education and the right job to even enjoying entertainment destinations, he has witnessed a "massive improvement" in how disabled people are treated in the UAE.

“Including being called 'people of determination' and being offering education and work opportunities," he says.

"These improvements are taking place in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. In the Northern Emirates, however, more needs to be done."

Abdullah plays an active role in this process, after launching his own charitable initiative, called Yes2MyGiving, to ensure people with disabilities get the most out of life.

The organisation works with voluntary and government bodies, with recent projects including providing better access to public buildings and more disabled parking.

He has also championed the cause of people with hearing and visual disabilities and offered a helping hand during the UAE's annual Reading Month.

"One man was telling me that he had lost the desire to live and wanted to spend his time at home. I did my best to motivate him. I advised him to read some books and used to continuously text him," he added.

Abdullah hasn't let disability define his life and he is out to ensure others follow his path, whatever obstacles they encounter along the way.