Post-2013 Approach to Disability Rights
Community and Independent Living in the Context of a Collectivistic Culture
Federal Law No. 29 is relatively silent on supporting persons with disabilities to live in the community with choices equal to others. In the UAE, persons with disabilities do not currently have access on an equal basis with others to housing and community-based services. The issue of independent and community living is based on the fundamental choices that persons with disabilities have or should have relative to where they live out their lives. In the UAE, people with disabilities are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement. Specifically, Article 9 specifies that individuals with disabilities should adapt himself or herself to integrate into society. The legislation characterizes the disability as occurring within the individual, irrespective of the individual’s environment, instead of characterizing the disability as a failure in agency of the individual due to barriers in the physical and social environment.
Federal Law No. 29, Article 9, takes the protectionist/rehabilitative approach to disability in contrast to Article 19 of the CRPD that is oriented around a rights-based model. Although Federal Law No. 29 could be improved by adopting the rights-based capability model articulated in the CRPD, the failure of the UAE to successfully implement Federal Law No. 29 in relation to independent living has more to do with the Council of Ministries and their delegates (established training centers and institutions) who are supposed to be taking the lead. Federal Law No. 29 should be amended to specifically provide for increasing choices to the manner in which persons with disabilities can live so that they may realistically be able to choose to form their own families or living near their families but independent of them.
Between 2006 and 2014, persons with disabilities did not live independently and were not being actively included in the community. This could be the result of the lack of support services and the cultural, political, and economic structures that define disability and citizenship. Like in other parts of the world, substantive citizenship in the UAE is afforded to an Emirati male that is employed or financially independent and has the capacity of forming a family. Substantive citizenship is more difficult for unmarried local women, older persons, and persons with disabilities. It is nearly impossible for foreign nationals to attain. This clear demarcation of citizenship and culture is indicative of the spectrum of salience between the international norms of the CRPD, the national norms of Federal Law No. 29, and the domestic norms of Arab culture and family tradition. Laws, culture, and politics all play a role in defining the social position of persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups. Their emancipation, therefore, depends on the restructuring of imaginaries and narratives around autonomy, human agency, tradition, religion, politics, and power. Awareness and attitudes are key factors in this social transformation.
The DDS recognizes the need to establish Centers for Community/Active Living (CCL) with the aim that such platforms may promote leadership, representation, and universalized disability awareness. To date, however, the charged Community Development Authority has not commenced the planning of such critical service delivery. This requires that it be able to promote self-advocacy and share knowledge of all available programs/opportunities via the ongoing exchange of information with others CCLs in the region and around the world. I certainly hope that by 2020, Dubai will embark, if only on a modest scale, on a center that can serve as a hub for exchange at a minimum and as a catalyst for empowerment and self-advocacy at best.
A Voice of Determination to the Once Voiceless: A Paradigm Shift in Disability Awareness and Advocacy
Article 8 of the CRPD on awareness-raising is considered by international disability rights scholars as being key to facilitating education, employment, accessibility, political and public participation, and other rights. As I have mentioned previously, Federal Law No. 29 heavily embraces the medical model of disability and thus does not characterize disability as a fundamental failure between the agent and their physical or social environment; instead, it characterizes disability as being the property of an individual. A person with a disability is understood by the law to be a deviation from the norm, thus needing rehabilitation to integrate into society. This is evident in the manner in which awareness raising is dealt with in Federal Law No. 29. The law does not raise this issue as a separate article but instead mentions it in the context of health. Article 11 states that awareness raising must concern itself only on the types of impairments instead of on the types of physical and social barriers that exist in society. The law thus understands the disability to be the property of an individual independent of their physical and social environment. Article 11 goes on to state that awareness raising should be the responsibility of the Specialized Committee on health. This statement is incongruous with the spirit of awareness raising that is reflected in Article 8 of the CRPD that states that awareness raising should be focused on providing equal opportunities in every aspect of life. Article 8 states that efforts should foster respect for the rights and dignities of persons with disabilities.Footnote 3
Federal Law No. 29 should be amended to mandate specific efforts in the area of awareness such as awareness training and the role of the media in promoting rights and dignities but failed to do so. Rights promotion is raised in Articles 3 and 4 of Federal Law No. 29 and Article 39 states, “This law shall be published in the official gazette” (2006). Hence the law also fails to indicate who besides the Ministry of Social Affairs shall promote the law and specify the ways it is to be promoted.
In line with the explicit Dubai Law No. 2 statement that respective authorities “will have the duties and powers to: raise awareness in society of the rights of Persons with Disabilities under this Law and the legislation in force, and organize the awareness and education activities and campaigns required for this purpose,” the Executive Council’s Department for the Policies and Programs for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities launched a wide-scale awareness campaign designed to normalize disability and bring the lived experiences into the normal spheres of life—from home life and parenting to sports and cultural events, education, and work environments. Data from the Dubai Social Survey on the public perception of disability from 2015 to 2017 documents a 10% average increase in awareness of the issues people with disabilities face in daily life to the belief that people with disabilities should be included in society.
The declaration in 2017 by the leadership that people with disabilities ought to be addressed as People of Determination shook the community to the core. Evidence of the transformation was evident in language and signage, propelling retailers among others to put the statement of declaration in public spaces such as public beaches and malls, banks and schools.
Universal Accessibility and Mobility on Paper and in Practice
Article 23 of Federal Law No. 29 delegates the authority for promulgation of building codes and implementing them (i.e., monitoring and enforcement) to the Council of Ministers. However, the Council of Ministers has not taken action on this specific mandate and a national building code that would accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities was never developed. This is politically challenging since each emirate has near-complete autonomy on land use and real estate development. However, the failure to develop the building codes was in violation of Article 23 of Federal Law No. 29. The delay to draft a unified set of federal building codes would also postpone efforts to effectively monitor and enforce Federal Law No. 29. Without monitoring and enforcement, Federal Law No. 29 had no real efficacy.
Article 23 could have provided a framework for developing regulations that are based on inalienable rights rather than simply protections. Unfortunately, it does not. The drafters of Federal Law No. 29 did not see disability as a dynamic context-specific experience, where the environment played a key role in limiting an individual’s choices and opportunities. The drafters of Federal Law No. 29 understood disability only in medical or essentialist terms, placing the lived experience of disability squarely on the individuals irrespective of their environment.
Federal Law No. 29 also falls short in describing how access is to be achieved. By comparison, Article 9 of the CRPD specifically notes that the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility shall apply to a wide variety of areas. The CRPD also specifies that accessibility should include information and communication as well as other electronic services. Despite this, Federal Law No. 29 is silent on access to information, digital services, and other key aspects of the country’s future development.
Dubai Law No. 2 stands strong in its objective to provide “Accessible Environments to ensure that Persons with Disabilities enjoy all their rights under the legislation in force,” with explicit mention of access to places of worship and to public places; using roads and means of public transport. In an attempt to meet the obligations set in the law, the Higher Committee appointed the Dubai Municipality and the Road and Transport Authority to develop the Dubai Universal Design Code to define how the built environment and transportation systems in the Emirate will be designed, constructed, and managed to enable one to approach, enter, use, egress from, and evacuate independently, in an equitable and dignified manner, to the greatest extent possible, in line with the Universal Design concept.
In 2017, the Government of the Emirate of Dubai began to implement the Dubai Universal Accessibility Strategy and Action Plan (DUASAP). Fifteen relevant governmental and semi-governmental local entities in Dubai were mandated to prepare a three-year (2018–2020) sectoral implementation plan to retrofit existing buildings, infrastructure, and facilities to ensure a barrier-free and fully inclusive physical environment. The ten priority sectors include Education, Healthcare, Recreation, Culture and Arts, Sports, Religious Services, Transportation, Retail and Commercial services, Justice and Judicial Services, and Tourism. The Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES), an international non-profit organization that promotes the accessibility of technologies and the built environment, was directly involved in the development of the policy. Using five strategic elements, Dubai has moved quickly to transform its infrastructure (built environment and public transportation) by 2020, ensuring that its code is enforced and implemented.
Mobility is mentioned in Article 20 of the CRPD and is referred to explicitly in Article 10 of Federal Law No. 29. Both articles cover assistive devices and mobility aids such as wheelchairs. Again, Federal Law No. 29 takes a medical approach in identifying a series of medical conditions that limit an individual without taking into account the individual’s environment. The CRPD approaches the right to mobility in a way that characterizes the disability as being relative to the individual’s social or physical environment. Federal Law No. 29’s emphasis on training should be directed not only toward persons with disabilities but also to staff, encouraging technologies that are facilitated at a time and manner of choice by the person with disability. Some efforts in this regard include innovations, hack-a-thons, and the deployment of wayfinding apps and specialized services such as Be My Eyes, or Aria that could transform mobility. In conjunction with the universal design standards, technology and mobility training for people with disabilities could open new possibilities for more equitable public participation for all.