Abu Dhabi: The UAE's first law to protect the rights of people with special needs was approved by President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The law is comprehensive and matches international standards, providing equal rights, opportunities and choice for people with a disability, according to Wafa Hamad Bin Sulaiman, Director of the Department for People with Special Needs at the Social Affairs Ministry.
Wafa, who was involved in drafting the law, told Gulf News the law removes all barriers to equal opportunities for these people and guarantees their right to a decent life and comprehensive care in education, training, health and rehabilitation.
The law, she said, guarantees an unspecified job quota for people with special needs in the public and private sectors, increasing accessibility to public buildings and residences and integrating people with special needs into public and private schools.
The law also provides for retirement considerations, allowing people with special needs to retire with full benefits earlier than their normal counterparts. Penalties for non-compliance with the law have also been included in the draft, which will be financial. Naji Al Hai, former director of the department for people with special needs and director of the cooperative societies department said setting an employment quota will be left to Mariam Mohammad Khalfan Al Roumi, Minister of Social Affairs, to interpret through ministerial decisions, which have the power of law, but can be changed without altering legislation.
"Public and private schools may not turn down a child on the basis of their disability, according to Al Hai, who also contributed to drafting the law.
"Under the law, people with special needs will have access to the benefits of education and enjoy equality of opportunity in school and college."
The law, he said, will enable independent living and promote and maintain equal opportunities, allowing people with special needs to actively contribute to, and positively benefit from, mainstream society.
Al Hai added that the law states that people with special needs have the right to work and take on public jobs.
The Cabinet will form a committee chaired by undersecretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs to recruit people with special needs.
The law obligates insurance companies to insure cars owned by people with a disability. These cars are also exempt from customs and other duties and parking fees. Postal and court fees for people with a disability will also be waived.
The Cabinet will also set guidelines for issuing people with special needs with driver's licences.
Mohammad, a young man with a mobility challenge, expressed the hope that the law will change attitude of people towards people with special needs.
"A change in attitude can change everything, enabling people with special needs to focus on living a real life and enjoy equal opportunities and experiences and dream big dreams.
"If educators believed children with disabilities are boys and girls with the potential to learn, who need the same quality of education as their brothers and sisters, and who have a career, we wouldn't have scores of children being under educated," Mohammad said.
32 centres cater to 3,000 children
There are currently 32 centres for about 3,000 children with special needs, according to statistics of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
These include 64 per cent mentally challenged with Downs Syndrome and other conditions, 12 per cent autistic, 1 per cent visually challenged, 7 per cent people with physical or mobility needs, 8 per cent people with hearing problems and 8 per cent with multi-challenges.
The ministry has recruited 115 students from centres for special needs across the country. Of these 99 are from Dubai Centre for People With Special Needs, 5 from Ras Al Khaimah Centre and 11 from the Fujairah Centre.
No exact numbers on the people or their disabilities will be available until the detailed results of the 2005 UAE census are out. Unofficial reports, however, put the figure at about 5,500 people.