On November 10, 2013, the Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum made an unexpected and bold announcement, “Sign language and braille will be commonplace in Dubai by 2020” (WAM 2013). Dubai—a city for business, luxury, and status—would, according to the Ruler’s Media Office, be transformed into a “city for everyone” (“Dubai will be a place for everyone, says Sheikh Hamdan,” 2013). I remember thinking at the time that if his declaration proves true, Dubai would in the span of seven years be transformed into an inclusive city, a city where “all responsible service bodies” work to construct “a city welcoming to people with disabilities” (WAM 2013). I was eager to find out how such a complete transformation could possibly occur so quickly.
This was a particularly interesting proposition because in the six years prior (between 2007 and 2012), I documented the rapid rate of urban development and the entrepreneurial and competitive spirit of Dubai. Would best practices in architecture and urban design transform Dubai into the world’s most disability-friendly city? I was not so sure, but that goal had deep roots. Designers, planners, and policymakers often fail to adequately consider the evolving transformation of disability and the historical trajectory of how disability is understood and defined socially.
This chapter narrowly focuses on the policies and histories that shape the lived urban experiences of persons with disabilities in the city of Dubai between 1980 and 2012. Although the wider forces of globalization, trade, and commerce clearly affect the urban experiences of diverse constituents, this book will not attempt to detail the implications of Dubai’s economic transformation during this period. Other scholars, including Davis and Monk (2007), Davidson (2008), Krane (2009), Salem (2016), Akhavan (2017), Hannam (2018), and De Jong et al. (2019), have all previously explored the economic, geopolitical, and physical transformation of Dubai as a rising global metropolis. Instead, here I focus on the social context of access and inclusion for people with disabilities and the interceding urban transformation during a critical period of economic and institutional change.
This book situates disability policy as the primary unit of analysis within key social institutions to illustrate how Dubai’s political and urban transformations shape and are shaped by the people, processes, histories, organizations, policies, and attitudes toward disability. Extensive fieldwork, including interviews, surveys, and focus groups conducted in Dubai between 2007 and 2012, was aimed at answering the following questions: What steps have planners and policymakers taken to make Dubai more inclusive
of persons with disabilities, what impact has this had, and what broader lessons can be drawn from the experience?
While the interrelated concepts of equity, empowerment, accessibility, and inclusion are foundational to the field of urban planning, their application to disability rights is virtually absent in the planning literature. This is especially troubling when we consider the large amounts of literature developed in the burgeoning field of disability studies. There is wide consensus that individuals with disabilities in most major cities confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles when interpreting signage, identifying the presence bus stops, navigating through poorly planned streetscapes, or generally moving around cities without assistance.
In this book, the adjective inclusive strictly denotes inclusive
of persons with disabilities. Thus, an inclusive city is one where public services are provided on an equitable basis to persons with and without disabilities. An accessible city is inclusive because accessibility allows people to enjoy the same range of rights, privileges, and services regardless of their gender, race, class, age, or impairment. Defining an inclusive city this way also implies that an inclusive city promotes equity, empowerment, and accessibility as stipulated in the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It should be no surprise that these concepts are transformative and, when implemented, demonstrate how “rights to the city” function in practice.
This chapter is structured into two parts. The first part explores the concept of transformation by highlighting for the first time the legal, political, social, and cultural evolution of disability services in the Emirate of Dubai during its early development between 1980 and 2006. The second part offers a short discussion of empirical findings from fieldwork conducted during the height and slowdown of its growth, namely between 2007 and 2012.
A City for Some or for Everyone?
Proponents of disability rights may initially be skeptical of Dubai’s “City for Everyone Initiative.” According to Ahmed M., a leading architect working for Dubai Municipality, “transforming a city from a construction site to a universally designed city is not an easy task” (personal communication, October 20, 2009). However, he is quick to note that “Dubai has proven the naysayers wrong before.” He is referencing the dramatic changes that Dubai has experienced in prior 30 years. Between 1978 and 2008 Dubai was transformed from a sleepy fishing village into a bustling metropolis with world-class attractions such as museums, theme parks, malls, holiday resorts, exclusive communities, wellness hotels, and festival markets (Dehaene and De Cauter 2008; Edensor and Jayne 2011). The ruling family, the Al Maktoums, achieved many of the seemingly improbable goals for the city that they indicated they would: construction of the world’s tallest building and largest shopping mall, as well as the Palm Jumeirah development, a 7 km long man-made island that takes the shape of a palm tree (Staff 2008, 2010c, d, e). The government has dramatically improved health outcomes, lowered mortality and morbidity rates, and positioned Dubai as the “City of Tomorrow.” Despite these remarkable feats of urban and social development, little is known of how these urban transformations affect the lives of persons with disabilities.
According to the Khaleej Times, the “City for Everyone” initiative launches a new legislative framework. The initiative will develop public and private sector projects that improve public services and infrastructure for people with disabilities. Specifically, these initiatives remove physical barriers and afford persons with disabilities access to all public sector services on an equal basis to persons without disabilities (WAM 2013). A “City for Everyone” would provide “excellent healthcare” to people with disabilities, as well as “supportive social services,” and mandates that “all responsible parties” create a “broad societal awareness that contributes to integrating people with disabilities and confirms their participation in community development” (WAM 2013). The rationale for embarking on these ambitious changes is described as “backing the current efforts of Dubai to empower people with disabilities within an overarching framework that contributes to enhancing the effectiveness of existing projects.” The article goes on to say that additional initiatives would maximize the participation and integration of this “category” in the community and create new opportunities through which to overcome all the obstacles that may stand in the way of positively engaging and integrating this segment in their social environment as individuals who possess productive and creative capabilities (WAM 2013).
The language used indicates that people with disabilities are a “category” or “segment” of people that must overcome obstacles preventing them from positively engaging in the broader community. This statement simultaneously sets out a vision and mandate that is at once both ambitious and vague. What are the specific obstacles to participation and what new opportunities will be created and by whom? How will the “City for Everyone” initiative succeed and who defines the metrics for its success? Who specifically will create these opportunities? How have planners and policymakers in Dubai designed and implemented opportunities for persons with disabilities in the past? If so, what results have they had? To answer these questions, we must uncover the existing legal, cultural, and historic precedents that can contextualize and add depth to the “City for Everyone.” In the next section, I argue that Dubai’s “City for Everyone” initiative is not in fact a new initiative; it is rather a purposeful and public re-commitment to fulfilling unmet public mandates, including national and international laws as well as basic local needs.
A City of Laws, Needs, and International Obligations
Dubai’s international obligations complement its political commitment to disability issues. In 2008, Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognized accessibility as a human right. This legal instrument fundamentally influences the ways that cities are built, and leaders in Dubai have taken note. From London’s full fleet of accessible black cabs to Paris’ adoption of tactical museum tours for the blind and Sao Paolo’s new accessible transportation master plan, the CRPD is increasingly reshaping urban life.Footnote 1 In the 93 countries that have ratified the CRPD, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), waves of urban and social reforms aim to dismantle pervasive architectural and attitudinal obstacles. Few scholars have set out to document how this golden wave of accessibility is actually being carried out.
The CRPD obligates cities to plan for and meet explicit goals. It reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with others (United Nations 2006). The way cities understand discrimination toward persons with disabilities needs to change. According to the CRPD, local and national governments must protect their residents from discrimination on the basis of disability not only by passing laws but by changing attitudes. According to the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability Sheikha Hissa Al Thani, a member of the ruling family of the neighboring state of Qatar, “[d]isabled people are more marginalized and more isolated than other people…specifically in the Arab region; they are invisible, because of negative social attitudes” (Reini 2008). One clear example of how people with visual impairments are marginalized is recounted to me by a local advocate named Awatif; she noted in an interview, “the fact that we are denied the right to open a bank account is due to an outdated banking law. This law requires all clients to be able to read a written policy and sign on the dotted line” (personal communication, 2009).
Since 2005, the Ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has repeatedly stated that persons with disabilities should be given the support to allow them to contribute to the development of the nation on an equal basis with others (JIWIN 2007; Rains 2005a, b, c; Staff 2010a). The UN Special Rapporteur specifies that people with disabilities should be able to live in a city that entitles them “the same rights to work, education, and health care as everybody else – and granting these rights is a prerequisite rather than a concession [of governments]” (Reini 2008).
On September 12, 2006, and in response to the CRPD, the Supreme Council of the UAE enacted a landmark national law, Federal Law No. 29 (Staff 2009a, b, 2010b).Footnote 2 That same day, Gulf News published an article titled “Law Removes Barriers for People with Special Needs” (Salama 2006). According to the article, the UAE’s first law to protect the rights of people with disabilities was approved by President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. According to Wafa Hamad Bin Sulaiman, Director of what at that time was the Department for People with Special Needs at the Social Affairs Ministry, the law was comprehensive, “matching international standards, providing equal rights, opportunities and choice for persons with disabilities” (Salama 2006). She indicated that Federal Law No. 29 removes all barriers to equal opportunities for persons with disabilities and guarantees their right to a decent life and comprehensive care in education, training, health, and rehabilitation (Salama 2006). The law, she said, guarantees an unspecified job quota for qualified individualsSeeAlsoSeeAlsoMinistry of Social Affairs with disabilities in the public and private sectors, provides for improved accessibility to public buildings and residences, and integrates students with special needs into public and private schools (Salama 2006). However, in the subsequent six years since the passage of the law, proponents for disability rights in Dubai bemoan that the Ministry of Social Affairs has failed to adequately implement the law. Khaled A., an Emirati lawyer, noted, “every city in the country, including Dubai, has wasted time” (Khaled A., personal communication, December 25, 2013). Jumana B., a special educator in Dubai, noted that by 2013 the city had made little progress in making schools, places of employment, government websites, and telecommunications infrastructure more accessible (Jumana B., personal communication, December 30, 2013). What were the factors that impeded progress? How could local institutions at various levels of government effectively respond to these mandates?
The CRPD and its local counterpart, Federal Law No. 29, differ significantly in their approach to social inclusion, and these differences ultimately affect the inclusiveness of city life. Both laws outline a range of actions and responsibilities and highlight the need for cross-sector cooperation. However, upon closer assessment, Federal Law No. 29 falls short on two accounts: it categorizes disability issues as a social protection issue instead of a human rights issue, and it fails to provide implementing agencies with specific regulations. As will be evident in later chapters this would be one of several fundamental institutional challenges to building a truly inclusive and accessible city.