Besides the My Community initiative, a lot needs to be done to make Dubai a disabled-friendly city.
It took Mohammed Al Marzouqi seven years to get a job. The Emirati man, who is married with a beautiful five-year-old daughter, sunk to the depths of despair, before a government programme — and some family contacts — came through. Why the struggle in a country with a booming economy and so great a need for workers they ship most of them in?
Sultan Essa, Rashid Al Marzouqi and Mohammed Al Marzouqi discuss issues faced by people with disabilities. -KT photo by Amanda Fisher
“We can’t manage to find jobs, it’s very hard for us,” says the mildly intellectually disabled man, referring to people with disabilities.
Mohammed, 34, speaks English with ease. He even spent a year in the United Kingdom learning the language. Since 2010 he has worked at car dealer Al Ghandi Auto, securing spare parts for customers.
“I like it…sometimes I have fun (but) sometimes it’s very hard.”
He says some at work treat him differently because of his disability. But he’s glad to have this job, given his doubts he was even considered for earlier jobs.
“They don’t include us with the CVs, they throw them away.”
As Dubai looks to position itself as a disability-friendly city by 2020, through the My Community initiative launched last November by Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, there are many steps to be taken — the most important of which, according to 28-year-old Rashid Al Marzouqi, is in the mind.
“I think it’s doable, but we need more accessibility and we need to change the mindsets of people…also for parents to let their disabled children (integrate in society), not isolate them.”
The young Emirati, who has cerebral palsy, is uniquely positioned. He works for the Community Development Authority’s (CDA) Al Kayt programme — named after a traditional Emirati rescue boat — as a Community Care Executive, helping place people like Mohammed in jobs.
People with disabilities are often treated like children, he says.
“The way that some people talk it’s like talking to a child, or some people will stare at you. I want people to think about the abilities and not the disabilities, and to give them the same rights as they would give any other human being.”
He says employers should remain open-minded about hiring those with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities.
“People with intellectual disabilities are good at organisational skills — just give them a chance.”Bizarrely, some with disabilities are too qualified for roles.
“It’s difficult for the highly-qualified to find work because the jobs they want people with disabilities to do are very limited, like maybe in a contact centre. We have a few on our website that are very qualified…and it’s very difficult for us to get them jobs.”
The astute young man, who adopts the role as translator during our interview for those whose English falters, acknowledges he has been lucky.
He began working at the CDA as an intern while still at the Dubai Centre for Special Needs. Three months later, in May 2010, they offered him a job.
The eldest of three boys and two girls, Rashid says his family is very supportive. While not married yet, he hopes one day to have a family of his own.
Turning Dubai into a disability-friendly city will require action across different government sectors.
“There are a lot of services that need to be implemented to make Dubai disability-friendly (including) the laws. Places in Dubai should be accessible for people with disabilities, also…the health system and education system (need work).”
A major impediment for disabled job-seekers, is that special needs education centres do not offer any accreditation or graduation certificates.
“The certificates they give you are a report at the end of the year, but it’s not recognised by the Ministry (of Labour)…(before this job) I contacted one or two companies…by the time they hear you don’t have a certificate, they finish the call.”
But Zahra Al Balooshi’s resume glitters; she has worked in four different jobs over 17 years. In two weeks she will gain a bachelor’s degree in Human Resources and Business, to add to her Higher Diploma in Human Resources.
The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority senior executive, who works in the metering and equipment section, has worked previously for United Bank Ltd, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, and Dubai International Financial Centre, in spite of a paralysis on the left side of her body.
“Before I started work I was really shy, I was sitting at home…and not dealing with people very much. When I started working I was still shy but after some years I encouraged myself to change my attitude, everything.”
Working has even changed how she views herself.
“I do not see myself as special needs. I’m like other people, I don’t have any problems…I have more opportunities (even), better than people (without disabilities). They don’t have the future we have.”
The 40-year-old says triumphing over her disability means she is better equipped than most to deal with challenges and keep an open mind — she is hungry to learn and always asks supervisors for more work.
“I don’t think to go shopping or go out with friends, I’m always looking to improve myself and do better for myself…I don’t miss anything, I’m not less than anyone.”
Regular physio has even helped her regain movement.
While attitudes toward disabilities have improved over the years, Zahra says there is a long way to go.
She wants more schools for disabled children and funding to help with medical bills.
Another Emirati, Sultan Essa, is worried about his future job prospects. The 26-year-old, who has muscle atrophy, says it took two years to get a job.
“I think it’s because I’m a person with disabilities, and also my English is only a little.”
Sultan, who completed Grade 9 at Dubai High School, says at times he worried he would never get a job.
His Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority clerk job came through the Al Kayt programme several years ago.
While he feels as qualified as anyone for a promotion — which he is yet to get — “the community is closed. They think that because I have a disability I will need lots of days off”.
Sultan says he works on off days just to prove himself.
“I love my job but I want new challenges and responsibilities… I do the same job as other people whose title is (better).”
He also wants employers to support disabled staff to study further.
“People with special needs are usually late with their education…so when we’re in our jobs we have the money and we want to continue education, but we don’t have the time.”
The Dubai local is a keen sprinter, but improving accessibility and attitudes for people with disabilities is more likely to be a marathon.
In the past three years, the Al Kayt programme has placed 50 people with disabilities in jobs — but there are still 140 on their list.
Dr Bushra Al Mulla, Director of the CDA’s Dubai Early Childhood Development Centre, says ‘My Community’ has crucial backing from His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, which means all government departments must get in line with several years-old laws enshrining rights for the disabled.
The five core ‘My Community’ pillars are: (1) to prepare a draft regulation that will compel all sectors to undertake disability-friendly modifications like wheelchair access; (2) establish a hotline to report negligence and discrimination; (3) develop services for people with disabilities, such as leadership training programmes; and (4) make government departments conversant in sign language as well as (5) braille.
However, until the regulation is passed — expected sometime this year — there is no legal basis for the Dubai Municipality to force private entities to become disability-friendly.
“In seven years we have to have a full plan on how to implement other things than just these five.”
The CDA is already meeting with NGOs and others in the sector, which has highlighted a major problem — a severe shortage of professionals qualified to teach and rehabilitate the disabled.
“Specialist services, like speech therapy and occupational therapy, are lacking in the UAE, we always bring them from outside…we have to create new (tertiary) programmes and build our own capacity.”
Al Mulla acknowledges there needs to be more early intervention, while all sectors, such as health, education and social services, must work to provide an integrated model. When a disabled person reaches 18, the age of school end, services also end.
“There is a gap…after 18 the centres have to graduate them and they go back into their homes.”
Al Mulla says the authority will work with the Ministry of Education to implement accredited equivalent educational programmes or modified curricula into special needs education, so work opportunities open up.
The CDA’s vision also includes training families of disabled children to ensure discrimination does not start in the home — “children (are often) excluded at home if the family does not have the right tools”.
If Dubai is to truly become a disability-friendly city, between now and 2020 there must be efforts both from the top down and the bottom up to ensure “My Community” becomes more than just lip service.