Dubai seeks to be world’s best disabled-friendly environment
Abu Dhabi - If Dubai is to meet its goal of becoming one of the world’s most disabled-friendly cities by 2020, it must bring wheelchair users to the forefront in redesigning the city, campaigners said.
Last year, the emirate announced that four pilot projects aimed at making Dubai “a barrier-free city” would be rolled out in some public spaces. A $2.72 million study conducted to enhance the city’s accessibility named schools, parks, hospitals and transport systems as key areas of focus.
Organisers sought direct input from those with disabilities, calling on them to share suggestions and insights. They provided a hotline and smartphone application on which people with disabilities can upload photos of access problems. This is to help government officials and consultants identify areas of need.
A leading disability campaigner, however, says that disabled people should be doing more than just highlighting inaccessibility hotspots.
“We must appreciate the efforts of Dubai’s leaders for protecting the rights of people with special needs,” said Shaik Mohammed Bavazeer of Disability A Perception, a non-profit support group. “However, I believe a team of able-bodied people will not be able to create the sort of accessibility that suits every disabled person.
“Only someone with disabilities can understand the needs of people with disabilities. We already have a law that states buildings, malls and public places should have ramps. When able-bodied people survey these ramps, they may feel they are OK. They will not realise that many of them are not truly accessible.
“In the same way, many malls have dedicated washrooms for disabled people but they are still inaccessible because of the way they are designed or ordered. Simply paying engineers to make a city disabled-friendly will not succeed because they cannot truly understand what is required from a disabled person’s perspective.”
Bavazeer said teams of disabled people need to augment and be directly involved in the design of accessible schemes and initiatives. With their input, Dubai’s groundbreaking project would be even more successful.
“With disabled people involved, it will definitely help in creating the right sort of accessibility everywhere,” he said. “I encourage organisations, such as those involved in transport, to have disabled employees on their team, as they are the right people to produce the right ideas and allow objectives to be achieved and Dubai’s objective of becoming a disabled-friendly is one that I believe all cities should copy.”
Abdullah Al Shaibani, vice-chairman of the Higher Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has previously described the accessibility study as “the first step in our road map until we reach 2020”.
“It is a long journey that requires a lot of effort and that will start with an evaluation of what we have on the ground,” he said. “We will bring international standards together to see what fits our environment and, once this is ready, we will prepare standards to cover our buildings, parks, hospitals, infrastructure and public transport.”
Many Dubai-based disability campaigners welcomed the project. Among them is Shobhika Kalra, a Dubai resident who suffers from the rare degenerative disease Friedreich’s Ataxia. Kalra, who uses a wheelchair, co-founded the disability group Wings of Angelz, which advocates for the rights of wheelchair users in Dubai and encourages businesses to become more wheelchair-friendly. Kalra said the initiative is a great step.
“I believe His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum is a great ruler,” she said.
“Everyone should have equal opportunities to flourish, so Dubai’s efforts to be one of the most disabled-friendly cities by 2020 are very encouraging.
“There is a lot of work to be done to make Dubai disabled-friendly, in terms of its infrastructure. I believe Abu Dhabi should adopt a similar plan, and indeed there are people with disabilities all over the world who want to explore their potential,” Kalra said.
“This is definitely the beginning, and only when we voice our opinions will change happen.”
Kalra emphasised the importance of fostering an inclusive society in which people with disabilities are granted full and equal rights.
“It is very much needed because even if one person is disabled we are still part of the same society,” she said.
Khaled al-Kamda, director-general of the Community Development Authority, said the effort is not just intended to benefit disabled people but to be influenced and guided by them as well: “Once we remove barriers and there are no obstacles, there is nothing they cannot do and nothing they cannot use.”
In 2014, Sheikh Mohammed, UAE vice-president and ruler of Dubai, issued a decree to protect the rights of people with disabilities and support their participation in society. That decree paved the way for a substantial drive to make the emirate’s buildings accessible to everyone. New developments are adhering to rigorous disability-friendly standards and older areas are being remodelled and retrofitted to enhance access.
A range of similar initiatives have been introduced in Abu Dhabi. Public parking spaces, pavement, walkways, pedestrian underpasses and bridges, building entrances and other facilities are being assessed for their suitability.
People with disabilities can make use of free or subsidised public transport and special permits allow them to use designated spots in public parking areas and avoid fees. The municipality of Abu Dhabi City has launched a mobile service initiative, allowing disabled people to complete essential transactions and responsibilities from their homes and provides floating chairs for mobility-impaired children to enjoy activities at Abu Dhabi’s family beach.
The General Directorate of Abu Dhabi Police, in association with the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs, launched an SMS service that allows people with special needs to report issues and receive immediate assistance. In 2013, the city launched a new wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet.
The new advanced service — Wheelchair Accessible Taxi — was designed to provide disabled people with security and convenience measures, such as hydraulic systems for those with impaired motor skills.