Dubai: At the age of 13, when one is just entering his or her teen years, Dubai-resident Shobika Kalra received some news that would forever change her life. She was diagnosed with Friedreich Ataxia, a degenerative disorder that affects the nervous system. Today, 13 years later, she is fighting for her rights and for others who are wheelchair bound, just like her, through her initiative Wings of Angelz.
Though her journey has been difficult, she always sounds positive and is not ready to let go of her ambitions in life. Currently working as a product development executive with a special needs centre in Dubai, she founded Wings of Angelz in 2014 as a way to not just raise awareness, but to make the UAE more disabled-friendly.
During a visit to India in 2014, she went to see a movie with her sister at a popular cinema chain. However, there was no ramp to reach her seat and people had to carry her to it.
Is Dubai wheelchair friendly? Shobhika Kalra, 26-year-old Dubai resident, answers
She told Gulf News: “It was very discomforting. After the movie, my sister spoke with the manager and his response left us surprised. He believed a ramp wasn’t necessary because not a lot of people in India were in wheelchairs. We thought this was because there wasn’t a lot of awareness and people don’t understand the disability. That’s when we decided to start Wings of Angelz.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 15 per cent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. Studies indicate that, of these, some 10 per cent require a wheelchair. According to AccessAbilities Expo, a dedicated exhibition related to the disabilities and rehabilitation sectors, over 50 million people with disabilities reside in the Middle East alone. But, is everyone aware of this fact? In Kalra’s opinion and experience, it doesn’t seem like it.
She said: “I studied at a univesity in Dubai, which had a wheelchair-friendly campus. But, I would take the Dubai Metro to get there and even though the stations were easy to get through, it was hard to just get onto the train because there are no ramps on the pavement. Even to get into the station was hard.”
Residing in the Al Rashidiya area of Dubai, her journey to university began at the Rashidiya Metro Station and ended at the Nakheel Metro Station. The ramp to enter and leave the stations was facing the main road. “There were lots of moving cars around and it wasn’t very safe,” she said.
After launching Wings of Angelz, she began her mission by approaching the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).
She said: “I visited many of the Metro stations to find out which other ones did not have ramps. I then visited the RTA head office and spoke to them about this issue. They were very welcoming and supportive and have since built ramps at many of the stations and other locations.”
Her journey to university is much easier now as both stations have easily accessible ramps available. Seeing her first success, she decided to continue moving forward. As more volunteers joined her initiative, their reach became larger and they started approaching companies in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “We have a core team of 10 people, but the full list of volunteers extends to 150 members,” Kalra said.
In the past three years, 700 ramps have been built at different locations in both emirates. Their list of successes include banks, restaurants, cafes and other retailers. One of their biggest achievements came in the form of a garment retailer, Snowhite, that installed ramps at all their stores around the Middle East.
Hiroo D. Vassanani, Managing Director, Snowhite confirms that the initiative is in accordance with the company policy of reaching out to those who find it difficult to enter their showroom due to lack of wheel chair access.
He said: "We are happy to be a part of this social project started by Kalra, whose initiative ‘Wings of Angelz’ aims to create awareness about the need to make more places accessible for people in wheel chairs. We have already received a positive feedback and we have observed that after the installation the number of wheel chair bound shoppers has increased."
The group is also working in coordination with Zomato, a restaurant search and discovery service, to find restaurants in Dubai that require ramps. The website has created a filter for people to search for restaurants that have wheelchair accessibility.
Rohin Thampi, Regional Director Zomato Middle East, told Gulf News: “We are privileged to be a part of this great initiative by Wings of Angelz. Adding a filter on Zomato makes it widely accessible for users to browse and find wheelchair friendly restaurants. At many restaurants around the emirate, you’ll see stickers by Zomato and Wings of Angelz that show that the restaurant has wheelchair accessibility.”
Launched in 2015, the filter currently gives visitors an access to a database that has 2,225 restaurants in Dubai with a wheelchair friendly tag.
Having come a long way, Kalra looks back at her life when she was first diagnosed with her illness and remembers the difficulties she has faced in all these years.
She said: “Things are different and difficult, more so because I was walking on paths discovered by others, such as after school go to university and after that get a job. Though I have done all this, my body did not allow me to do it like others. I had to decide the way things should be for me.”
Through her initiative, Wings of Angelz, she hopes to make the world more aware and wheelchair accessible. In line with the Dubai Disability Strategy 2020, which aims to provide equal rights and services to people with disabilities in Dubai by the year 2020, Kalra and the group of volunteers hope to do their bit in achieving this goal.
Kalra said: “The journey has been difficult, but with the help of my family and friends, I have managed to get this far.”
To raise awareness about the cause, she recently went scuba diving. “It’s a misconception that people on wheelchairs cannot go scuba siving. It’s something everyone should experience once in their lives,” she said.
If anyone is interested in joining the cause, they can get in touch with Wings of Angelz through their Facebook page, Twitter profile or Instagram account or send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Everyone who wants to help can do so. Our youngest volunteer is 12 years old,” Kalra added.