IT IS HEARTENING to recognise the progress made in disability rights in Oman and appreciation for people with special needs since the beginning of our Renaissance in the 1970s to the present time. Societal awareness, recognition and acceptance of people of special needs especially children have positively dramatically changed in the last 50 years. Now parents no longer hide their disabled children and are ready to seek support to overcome their challenges. The role of disabled members within our community is recognizable, increasingly active and impressive. We in Oman are extremely lucky to have a very progressive government supporting the disable part in our community and encouraging their integration within the community. We have seen a positive paradigm change within our society due to the recognition by our government of the very positive role of the nongovernmental organisations (NGO) and patients’ organisations (PO) whose work is complementary to the social and health needs of our community during time of peace or crisis.
DR.WAHID ALKHARUSI & SH. SOUD AL RAWAHI
I was inspired by the recent Royal Decree fixing the terminology associated with this this sector of the community, as well as other independent grassroots initiatives celebrating the early warriors of the movement, to highlight the pioneers who overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges to establish a genuinely multi-disciplinary foundation calling for inclusion and accessibility and normalising collaborative engagement between the public & private sector and budding civil society. In Oman, I would mark the start of the movement as 1984 with Race Aid, an initiative introduced and managed by Sh. Soud Al Rawahi, who was then the President of the Oman Athletics Association. When he visited the physiotherapy department of Khoula Hospital he noticed that a very high number of in-patients were disabled,from genetic, metabolic, infectious, to victims of Road Traffic crashes (RTC), across the gambit from physical and intellectual disabilities.
Together with Dr Wahid AlKharusi, the then head of the Orthopedic, trauma and rehabilitation services of Oman, they explored how to best address the issues and challenges of the disabled and determined that there was potential for Race Aid to be transformed from simply being a fun race, to a race that would raise funds for the disabled who desperately needed support at multiple levels.
At that time in terms of the status and awareness, the disabled were still in the shadows, hidden, not talked about or accepted, not recognised nor embraced within the community.
The two conceptualised the beginning of the movement and formed a Task Force with like-minded people: The late Prof. Mussalem AlBualy, Sh. Salim Hamoud AlKharusi, Ms. Yuthar Al Rawahi, the late Mukhtar AlRawahi and Mr Tariq AlKhabouri
Parallel to the above RACE-AID approached and worked with a group of ladies at the Oman Women Association who supported the cause by holistically working and caring for disabled children. This was the origin of a number of NGOs’ affording excellent care for children with disability. To mention some Ms Raya Saif AlRiyami, Ms Shukoor Ghamary, Ms Barka Saleh
Since its formation of the task force until the registration of the Association with the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1993 the task force worked tirelessly to develop a road map for the next 10 years encompassing awareness, fund raising, empowerment of the disabled community and advocacy for inclusion of members of the disabled community in decision making capacities and naturally, participation in sports events nationally, regionally and internationally. The infrastructure then was needed to support such an ambitious shift within the community was outlined and advocacy and awareness community outreach programs were developed that were also directed to the decision makers who were very supportive and to the private and corporate sectors to develop public private programs (PPP) for a Win-Win -Win situation.
The mission was to create awareness and advocate for accessibility and develop innovative solutions to rehabilitate and re-integrate the disable members of the community back into society with sustainability. Disabled people have abilities that are critical to national growth and that would allow them not only a new lease of life if their potential is recognised and propelled, but an active thriving contributing existence too. Unfortunately, there were, and regrettably in some areas, continue to be, overlooked, or relegated to charity cases.
The task force pooled their diverse expertise and corridors of influence to advocate for specialised rehabilitation programs and training facilities and, fundamentally, introduced the concept of utilising and exposing the abilities of the disabled population rather than concentrating on their disabilities. This was revolutionary. Recognising and respecting people with disabilities was a hurdle that needed to be crossed. Having active members of that community on the task force impressed upon both the authorities and the general public the importance of the movement, legitimising and galvanising support across the board.
It was agreed that a fully-fledged Disabled Association needed to be urgently realised. The late Mukhtar Al Rawahi, a thoroughly capable rehabilitated RTC person with disability was endorsed to chair the Association and develop it. He made an unprecedented difference under his tremendous leadership. He propelled forward with wise planning, future vision and dedication the status of the disability to greater heights working closely with the media and with the support of the then Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Social Affairs as well as Muscat Municipality and the Ministry of Sports, the Association grew to become a strong, globally recognised institution conducting a number of urgently needed landmark projects.
Race Aid managed to raise a substantial funds to support the Association and also sponsored 2 container loads of wheelchairs that were desperately needed and were distributed freely to the disabled and to ensure sustainability,a repair workshop was initiated and managed totally by the trained disabled using the spare parts that were brought together with the wheelchairs - it was the first of its kind in the region.
In 2009 Mr. Tariq Khabouri started a challenging program, the Oman Disabled Diving group - an independent body that holds biannual events and also trained and certified 12 Omani doctors in hyperbaric medicine. This program afforded the disabled to venture and safely enjoy deep sea diving and exploration, illustrating yet again that if opportunities are afforded to them, the disabled equal the abled population if not exceed them in performance.
The early days of the movement really were a shining example of PPP in action; the active support of the different government entities put the disabled agenda on the highest levels of priority, the generous stakeholders in the private and corporate sector brought in philanthropists and CSR support, and the general public’s engagement and involvement with the Association’s messages and initiatives paved the way for success under the wise leadership of the late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Further improvement of the disabled status is evidently improving with the 2040 vision under His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tariq and his strong support for the disabled community.
It is incumbent on any exploration of the evolution of disability rights locally to recognise the role of the Oman Women Association for their lead in supporting disabled families especially those with disabled children. Amongst the many in the Association who became actively involved, Ms. Raya Al Riyami and Ms. Barka Al Bakry stand out in how they dedicated their time and embraced the disabled children with excellent and sustainable rehabilitation and care protocols.
As a result of these persistent efforts, the disabled in Oman enjoy recognised global rights and concessions. There is still more to be done. The Association, after a number of challenges, succeeded in securing disable parking spaces, easier access to most government and private institutions and commercial malls. With the late Mukhtar vision and personal efforts he developed the Oman Paralympics team and our youths became involved in the Paralympics and graced Oman with a number of medals and many more milestones were reached.
Advocacy and awareness for disability needs to continue within our community. Families with disabled members need to be identified and fully supported, with their human rights protected. The COVID-19 Pandemic has had a negative impact on many NGO’s globally. We need to support the disabled population and their families with professionalism, innovation, compassion, integrity and patience. We must collectively mobilise efforts to make them feel that they are valuable and integral members of our society, socially, educationally and commercially and not in anyway different. They deserve peace, respectability and contentment. Let us not neglect them nor treat them as charity cases - let us include and embrace and celebrate them, one and all.