LONDON// They visited plenty of the usual sights – Covent Garden, the Natural History Museum and Hyde Park – but for one group of Emirati students, seeing the opportunities for disabled people was the most exciting attraction in London.
About 20 students with disabilities, accompanied by staff and volunteers from Zayed University in Dubai, spent five days on a cultural exchange visit to London, organised with the British Council.
The university funded the trip to offer the young people, who have disabilities ranging from visual impairments to mobility issues, an opportunity to travel, have new experiences, meet people from other cultures and build up their independence.
For Fatma Al Qassimi, manager of the office of accessibility at Zayed University, it was also a chance to measure how far her institution had progressed in supporting disabled students since the UAE disability act in 2006.
“Most of the students shared the same experience, they’re just from different cultures,” she said. “I feel very proud about our progress. We were trying to start from the beginning and we have really worked hard to get here in a short period of time, by learning from other countries.”
On Friday, the group spent the morning at the University of Greenwich at the riverside campus it shares with the Old Royal Naval College, a Christopher Wren designed World Heritage site.
Melanie Thorley, disability project officer at the University of Greenwich, emphasised how both countries faced the same challenges in ensuring access to education for disabled people and was frank about Britain’s struggles.
“Our complaints are exactly the same as yours,” she said. “We do have negative attitudes among our teaching staff. Thankfully, we have got rid of most of them – people like me won’t tolerate it.”
The UK was also facing cuts to funding for disabled students’ additional support, reducing it by 50 per cent, she said.
Despite these difficulties, the Emirati students were impressed by the account of life for disabled people at Greenwich. One asked: “When can we apply to your university?”
Dr Thorley and her team of accessibility ambassadors, students who act as mentors for young people with disabilities, took questions from Emirati students about whether disabled students were able to choose any course they wanted and how orientation could be made easier for them when they first arrive.
Some cultural differences emerged. Dr Thorley said they didn’t use the word “normal” to described non-disabled students, because it risked stigmatising disabled ones. The Emirati group quickly adopted the suggestion.
Alaa Al Harbawi, a specialist at Zayed University’s office of accessibility, said that one of the main challenges they faced was this stigma, which often prevented students themselves from seeking help.
“We have a lot of students with disabilities who aren’t diagnosed because of the stigma issue,” she said. “In our university, we are facing this challenge where we hear from a teacher that a student has a disability. But the student is not always willing to be helped. They tell their teacher and say: ‘I don’t want anybody else to know’.”
“Talking to people is the best solution, being open so they know that it’s not anything to be ashamed of,” said Cora Mason, a drama student at Greenwich who is one of the accessibility ambassadors.
“If you prove that as a role model, they’ll start to believe it’s true. That’s what reduces stigma.”
This attitude of the UK students made the biggest impression on some of the visitors.
“I really liked the way the students talked about their disability,” said Ameena Al Hosani, an IT and enterprise student. “It makes it easier for us to see that disabilities like ours are something normal in society. There isn’t too much stigma.”
Source: uae news