Starting an advocacy centre in the United Arab Emirates

by Marilena di Coste, Special Needs Advocacy Consultancy, Dubai, UAE

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After living and working in Ireland for several years as a disability advocate, I relocated to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in November 2008. I arrived in Dubai enthusiastic to find a challenging and fulfilling role as an advocate. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that advocacy in the disability field is a relatively new concept here, and that empowerment, inclusion and equality of access and opportunity for people with disabilities still have a long way to go in the UAE.

Through my participation in various conferences, I met a government agency responsible for providing educational and rehabilitation services for people with disabilities, for whom I later provided training. Delivering culturally.sensitive training to the social workers and other government employees about advocacy for people with disabilities was an interesting and enriching experience, enabling me to learn about the local culture and institutional practices.

The need for advocacy and institutional support

As months of research about the disability field revealed an absence of an advocacy service for people with disabilities in the UAE, I decided to develop the first Advocacy Centre for people with disability in the country. The objective of my proposed centre is to enable, inform, empower, support and protect people with disabilities in accessing services, making informed choices and effectively participating in the decision-making process on all issues affecting them, with the ultimate goal of creating equality of opportunity.

This is intended to follow the Citizen Information Board Advocacy guidelines for the delivery of advocacy services in Ireland. As an active member of the Irish Association of Advocates, my training and practice in Ireland continues to play a significant role in my work here in the UAE. Despite some challenges Ireland faces, it still represents a successful and inspiring model of inclusion and integration for people with disabilities and I hope to implement some of the Irish advocacy practices here in the UAE.

One of the main challenges I am facing is that the word ‘advocacy’ in UAE is generally understood to mean legal representation. Further, as a reflection of the Arab religious and cultural values, the social representation, care and empowerment of people with disabilities are expected to be undertaken by the family. As such, empowerment of people with disabilities can be misconceived as a form of controlled support—with the person receiving controlled support from his or her family rather than him or her completely breaking free from dependency.

Disability and provision of disability services in the UAE

I have been unable to find any precise figures or statistics on the number of people with disabilities living in the UAE. While in most industrialised countries it is commonly accepted that the percentage of people living with disability is approximately 10% of the population, with the existence of interfamily marriages in this region, it could be presumed that this figure may be higher here.

Advocacy

There are currently approximately 40 centres catering to people with disabilities in the UAE, most of which are for children or youths, providing a mix of valuable educational and rehabilitation services, with only a few catering for adults—and only for recreational purposes. Based on my meetings with families of people with disabilities and the existing centres (all with waiting lists), there is a big demand for additional services, especially for more comprehensive adult services.

While these centres are greatly appreciated, Sally, a British expatriate mother of a young boy with Down Syndrome, described the existing institutional support for people with disabilities as insufficient owing to limited resources. She explained that any improvements in the lives of people with disabilities or other social support were primarily undertaken by the families of people with disabilities themselves. Not having external help while caring for a person with disability can be utterly exhausting and people like Sally would greatly welcome and benefit from assistance that a centre such as the one I am proposing would provide.

The legislative landscape

In November 2006, the UAE federal government passed the United Arab Emirates Disability Act (Federal Law No.29/2006, amended in December 2009) to protect the rights of people with disabilities in the social, economic, medical, educational, vocational, cultural and recreational aspects of their lives.

The law provides persons with disability with entitlements in specific areas such as medical and rehabilitation services, education, employment, public cultural and sport and accessible environment. Although this law represents an excellent framework for protecting the rights of UAE citizens with disabilities, its enforcement mechanisms are not defined and implementing these safeguards may prove to be a challenge.

Lack of societal awareness

Fragmentation and dispersion of information, combined with the absence of a centralised point of referral for people with disabilities and their families to receive information and support increase their level of isolation and frustration. The difficulty in attaining consistent information and centralised assistance is further exacerbated by the administrative hurdles and delays that are prevalent in a rapidly growing nation.

The stigma attached to disability caused by the lack of education and awareness of how people with disabilities can be empowered to become fully functioning members of society is a further impediment to the support received by people with disabilities. There is generally a lack of recognition and understanding that people with disabilities can not only take care of themselves, but also contribute to society by being effective members of the workforce.

Despite all these challenges, things are now fortunately moving in the right direction; there is a renewed and genuine attention to the needs of people with disabilities and an indication of commitment from the government authorities to improve the life and the living conditions of people with disabilities.

A new decade of positive changes

On 19 March 2010, the President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, indicating that the UAE is ready to make major progress in the disability field in line with the UN Convention.

The Community Development Authority, which is responsible for setting up and developing frameworks for social development in Dubai, also established an employment programme this year which aims to provide people with disabilities the same rights and benefits as people without disabilities, empowering them to be actively employed and to provide appropriate training to enhance their personal skills and to raise awareness about disability within the community. The programme is called El Kayt (‘lifeboat’ in Arabic), symbolising the programme’s goal of recognising the valuable role of a person with disability into society.

In May 2010, the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, launched rules for special education programmes under the theme ‘School for all’. Reinforcing the principle set out in the law that no school in the UAE can refuse admission to a child deemed as having learning difficulties or special needs, schools are expected to provide for these children from kindergarten to grade 9. These new rules provide a framework on how to properly integrate special needs students within the education system through support programmes and infrastructure that guarantee fair access. The Ministry will also work with public and private schools to provide training for special education teachers. The programme goes on trial in ten schools this September.

Hopes for the future

It is within this context of positive changes that I see the success of my proposed advocacy service. The objective is to inform people with disabilities in the UAE about the rights and services available, and to support and represent them in accessing these services, and to facilitate peer support groups to overcome isolation.

The service intends to operate in cooperation with international disability agencies and the United Nations. The Office of the Special Rapporteur on Disability from the United Nations has sent a letter of support, wishing success for the planned activities. In this regard, I wish to thank the Irish Association of Advocates, Spinal Injury Ireland, BRI, The Acquired Brain Injury Association and all the agencies that have extended their support and expertise in developing the service.

The proposed Special Needs Advocacy Service is still at its inception and awaita approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which is responsible for licensing non-government institutions specialising in providing services for people with disabilities.

I am incredibly hopeful that the new legislation and UN ratification will open the door to a much better world for the people with disabilities in the UAE. I hope to be able to update Frontline readers in the coming months with positive news for this exciting project that could enhance the lives of people with disabilities in the UAE.

Marilena has a background in law and she is a qualified Advocate (Higher Certificate in Advocacy, IT Sligo, Ireland). She worked in Ireland as an Advocacy officer for BRI, The Acquired Brain Injury Association. Shea is a Member of The Irish Association for Advocates and has witnessed the very valuable role of advocacy in combating inequality and social exclusion.

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