The provision of extra services in the UAE – A win win situation for both disabled and non-disabled users.

One of the great things that I noticed in the UAE, which is helpful for disabled people, is the extra service provided at different service industries.

Back in the UK, filling up my car can be a challenge. My choice in petrol stations has of late become limited due to various reasons, including; the introduction of payment choices when filling up. On the actual petrol pump some stations have provided a small computer in which you input your choice of payment method before filling up. Cannot reach the computer thus I am unable to fill up my car. Whilst other people are given two choices of payment it takes away my choice even to fill up my car. Even when I can fill up my car I am often unable to reach the chip and pin machine because it is bolted on top of a high counter. Although most petrol stations offer assistance to wheelchair users, I am not wheelchair user so I am left with having to find an accessible petrol station.

What is great in the UAE, is that someone fills up your car, regardless of whether or not you have a disability, and takes payment from you without you having to step foot out of your car. All you have to worry about is whether or not you have told them the correct fuel for your car. That may seem like a luxury for some, but for me it takes away a disabling situation.

The other great thing is that in most supermarkets, in Dubai anyway, is that people pack your bags for you at the checkout. This is great for me as back home I cannot properly reach over the space where all your groceries roll down into after being scanned. Sometimes the cashier will offer to help pack my bags, but usually I have stand on tiptoes and really stretch over to be able to reach my items and pack them away. This generally takes me more time to do, making me paranoid about the queue forming behind me. But when someone packs your bags for you all you have to worry about is payment.

Often the extra dependency disabled people require can be stigmatising, in some cases creating unwanted attention. Whereas if everyone receives this same level of service the stigma and unwanted attention disappears. I am not suggesting that this be the case in regards to the various extra help disabled people require, but for me the extra level of service the UAE provides within some of it tertiary industries, makes daily tasks easier without drawing any attention to me.  Whilst the UAE provides this service for everyone, it unintentionally creates more accessibility for disabled people, such as myself, who are often not recognised as a disabled person.

Dwarfism in Dubai

I have recently returned back from my fourth vacation to the UAE, staying in Dubai. I stay with my best friend who moved out there several years ago to live with her now husband. I have loved every visit as the UAE has so much to offer, especially Dubai. What can often spoil the experience though is both unnecessary inaccessibility and the unwanted social behaviour of some people towards my dwarfism.

Like most cities Dubai has a lot of accessible spaces and facilities, which although mostly cater for wheelchair users can be useful for people with dwarfism, such as low ticket scanners at the Metro stations. Despite this most things are still inaccessible, when in most cases they do not have to be. One of the first things I am greeted by when I step off the plane are the very high passport control desks which I have to throw my passport onto and then step back for the member of staff to see me. There are several desks, so surely one lower desk would benefit people like myself as well as wheelchair users.

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Then there are the sinks found within the lavatories within all of the shopping malls. Despite there being several to choose from I cannot reach any. One low sink would not only be accessible for someone like me but also for children who should be encouraged to wash their hands. I did have a pleasant surprise coming out of the lavatories, in one of the many shopping malls on my first visit, as one of the sinks was lowered to accommodate for shorter people, most likely children. If one place can do it, why can’t the others? Surely it would make Dubai even more accessible. Dubai is home to some of the most innovative and impressive architecture of this century, yet still encountering inaccessible spaces, when there is no reason to, lets it down.

Then there is the social aspect. As someone with dwarfism, it does not matter where I go my height is going to attract unwanted attention, whether it is in the form of staring, pointing, laughing, name calling or more recently with the popularization of mobile phones with cameras: being photographed.

I always feel apprehensive in tourist destinations, as often I receive more attention than the actual sight. This is no exaggeration, when I was in New York one women took a photograph of me when actually a picture of the Statue of Liberty may have been more appropriate for her photo album. On my first visit to Dubai I went up the Burj Kalifa and was left impressed by the fantastic views. What ruined my experience was a Farther asking if he could take a picture of me with his daughter. I politely refused but as soon my back was turned he tried to take a photograph anyway but was stopped by my friend’s Mother in Law’s angry protest. If only he could have been as impressed as I was by Dubai’s skyline and not the person who is just small. If he had been perhaps we both could have enjoyed our holiday more.

Unlike in the UK, I do not really get called any names when I am in Dubai, except the odd ‘midget’ from tourists, but the staring is immense. Waiting at the checkout I could hear someone shouting behind me, only for me to turn around and notice a member of staff, not only staring at me but calling his friend to come over and join in with him. This may not seem like much of an issue, but when someone is staring at you because you look different and making a show of you in front of his colleagues, it does not help you to feel like part of society but more of an outcast.

Dubai has a high level of expats from all over the World, so I understand that in some cultures it is acceptable to stare at someone different, but that does not make the situation any better for people with dwarfism whether living or visiting the UAE. In the UAE there is now an established support group for people with dwarfism wanting to fight prejudice, to be treated with dignity and gain equality. For this to happen the UAE could benefit from some form of disability awareness raising scheme which includes dwarfism. I say this as I know the UAE is working hard to become more accommodating for disabled people, but often this inclusion only considers the most known disabilities. Raising awareness of various disabilities, not just the ones that readily spring to mind, would not only benefit UAE citizens but also the many disabled tourists who visit, both socially and spatially.

 

Increasing Disability Awareness within the United Arab Emirates

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The UAE has become home to a growing number of innovative technologies and ground breaking architecture, including the Burj Khalifa; the world’s tallest building. Cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi have, almost overnight, become recognised as major global cities, up there with the likes of London, New York and Tokyo.

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The UAE is a growing tourist destination with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wanting to double Dubai’s tourism by 2020. To aid in maximising tourism it is important that spaces and facilities are accessible for a wide range of users, including disabled people.

In some cases the UAE can be problematic for disabled people, as also noticed by Srin Madipalli (2014) who acknowledged the good and bad points about Dubai in terms of disabled access. Whilst the good points should be celebrated, the bad points should be worked upon in order to create a more accessible UAE. This includes implementing more drop kerbs in Dubai, and creating more accessible transport links.

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I have visited the UAE on several occasions, as a disabled tourist, and I have noticed how accommodating the buildings are for disabled people, as well as how spaces and facilities can be improved to provide greater access. What I would like to stress is that some of the accessible spaces were not just designed for wheelchair users but a whole range of disabled people. This is an important point as all too often accessible design for disabled people seems to begin and end with wheelchair users. This can be problematic for those who do not use a wheelchair, as spaces still remain inaccessible.

Recently I have completed my PhD from Newcastle University, entitled: The Social and Spatial Experiences of Dwarfs in Public Spaces. Half of the thesis focused on the problems of access for dwarfs due to spaces and facilities being designed and constructed for the average sized person. Another finding addressed how disabled spaces and facilities are often inaccessible as they only cater for wheelchair users. I proposed that adopting a more encompassing design concept, such as Universal Design, would increase accessibility for a wider range of users, including those with a body size which exceeds the norm, those with sensory impairments, and arthritic conditions.

Universal Design focuses on not just the removal of structural barriers but aims to achieve a more inclusive design approach (Iwarsson and Stahl, 2003). A more inclusive design approach would mean designing spaces for the majority of the population, resulting in spaces being suitable for range of different people. Universal Design not only accommodates for more common types of impairments, including wheelchair users, but for a wider range of impairments, as well as different users within society, including children and older people.

In terms of body size, Universal Design aims to accommodate for both the tall and the small, and the fat and the thin, thus not discriminating one when providing for another. This is done through either providing multiple facilities provided at different heights, or adjustable facilities. Examples include, the “hi-low” water fountains which are made up of two spouts, at different levels, using the same plumping function (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012). Universal Design permits people to carryout daily activities without hindrance or inconvenience (Barnes, 2011). Another example is a door handle placed too high restricting access for someone with dwarfism. Using Universal Design the solution would be to either fit a longer door handle which is both suitable for tall and short people or to implement an automatic door.

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As a disabled person and someone with several years of research experience, specialising in disability, my mission is to help to create more accessible environments for a range of disabled people. Overall I feel I have the right knowledge and ability to help create a more accessible UAE which would help to increase tourism.

References:

Barnes, C. (2011) ‘Understanding Disability and the Importance of Design for All’    Journal  of Accessibility and Design for All, 1(1): 55-80

Iwarsson, S. and Stahl, A. (2003) ‘Accessibility, Usability and Universal Design – Positioning and Definition of Concepts Describing Person-Environment Relationships’ Disability and Rehabilitation 25 (2) 57-66

Madipalli, S. (2014) Accessibility in Dubai: the great, the good, the bad and the annoying. Disability Horizons [online] Available from:http://disabilityhorizons.com/2014/01/accessibility-in-dubai-the-great-the-good-the-bad-and-the-annoying/ (Accessed 04/01/2015)

Steinfeld, E. and Maisel, J.L. (2012) Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments, Hoboken: John Wiley and Son