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.
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.