Salem Bawazir, the first person of determination to be hired at Expo 2020, and the man who led the inclusion programme at that global event, has a very simple but powerful mantra for success: To see the positive in every situation, and to use the negativity that comes his way as fuel to propel himself forward.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, the 50-year-old Emirati has spent most of his life in a wheelchair. But the biggest challenge he’s faced while trying to build a career for himself hasn’t come from physical limitations; it has come from the societal stigmas towards people with disabilities.
“There still lies a fundamental ignorance and lack of awareness of the capabilities and potential of people of determination,” he says. “This persistent societal attitude makes finding a job and having a successful career a daunting task.”
A rough ride
Entirely self-taught, he began his career at 33 as a community coordinator with a book retailer, an employment made simpler, he says, by the fact that Federal Law No. 29 of 2006 made it mandatory for companies to hire people with disabilities.
But when it was time for him to look for a new position five years later, Bawazir faced rejection from employers that left him in tears after an interview.
“A prospective employer asked me as to why I should be hired if I couldn’t even move my hands,” he recalls. “There was a question mark raised on the value that I could bring to the organisation. A lot of employers refused to hire me, and there were companies that didn’t even bother responding to my job applications.”
Undeterred Bawazir soldiered on – a stint as an HR coordinator followed, something he gave up in an attempt at forging a future as an entrepreneur. He put in a seed capital of Dh150,000 to start his own graphic design company. That initiative too ran aground, when an SME fund created to support entrepreneurial ideas like his, refused to support him with the financing required. “They didn’t believe in my ability to run my own business,” he says. It was once again a cruel reminder of how society was judging people like him, “not on ability, but on disability”. With these kind of experiences, a number of people would have just given up. Not Bawazir.
2020 heralded a turnaround when Expo rolled into Dubai. With the UAE’s renewed commitment to empower people of determination, Bawazir found himself uniquely positioned to lead the inclusion programme at Expo 2020. It was an opportunity that allowed him to work with the accessibility, health and safety, information and future technology, and construction partners at the event to ensure that people like him could make the most of the experience. In his capacity not only could he recruit and train people with disabilities, but his unwavering dedication to work helped him raise awareness about them.
“As the first person of determination to be hired at Expo 2020, I made history,” he says proudly. “I hope that it will inspire others to follow in my footsteps and break down barriers of their own.”
For Bawazir himself, the job at Expo meant that he was now more confident in the face of challenges, and there continued to be many. Ten months post Expo 2020, he struggled to find employment, but his resilience and never-say-die attitude finally paid off. Impressed by his confidence, his curiosity and a willingness to learn, a leading UAE organisation offered him his current job with the Learning and Development team in its HR department.
An inclusive future
Today Bawazir brims with positivity and hope for the future. A future, where he wants to rekindle his entrepreneurial calling, a business of his own. This time around, he will do it without any external funding, he says with a smile.
“My goal is to change people's thoughts and beliefs, and to help a new generation embrace the principles of equality and equity for all.”