DUBAI: – Ahead of International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), four remarkable trailblazers who are changing the way people perceive disabilities have been talking about the importance of the day.

This year’s theme for IDPD, which is celebrated annually on 3 December, is ‘Building Back Better: Towards an Inclusive, Accessible and Sustainable Post-COVID-19 World by, for and with Persons with Disabilities’.

Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot; Pakistan’s ‘Iron Lady’ Muniba Mazari; two-time Paralympian and TEDx motivational speaker John Register; and Rahima Amiraly, Founder of the UAE’s Rising Stars, are all using the Expo 2020 Dubai platform to advocate for those living with disabilities.

Expo visitors can see Gadot when she lands at the France Pavilion on 3 December as part of a programme staged by Better World Fund, a Paris-based humanitarian initiative that has organised a series of high-level events in the likes of Cairo, Monte Carlo, New York and Venice in the past five years.

Through her empowering movie roles, Gadot, who is a Better World Fund patron, has inspired many to exceed their limits, notably six-year-old Carmela Chillery-Watson, who has a muscular dystrophy. Watson made headlines for walking a kilometre a day for 30 days dressed in a Wonder Woman costume. Gadot described her as ‘the true Wonder Woman’, tweeting a message of support: “You’re a true hero. So inspiring and strong. I hope one day we get to meet each other.” Watson reciprocated with a video message thanking Gadot for encouraging her to “fight on living with muscular dystrophy … you help me and other children have hope.”

The event at the France Pavilion will also include a two-hour presentation on innovation for disabilities and an economic roundtable with UAE businessmen; a conference bringing together global leaders in the field of disabilities, such as triple Paralympic champion Marie-Amélie Le Fur, to tackle issues around disability; and an animated film screening by UAE director Fadel Al-Mheiri, titled Dear Mother, which delves into life with disabilities.

From 2 to 4 December, the USA Pavilion will host John Register. When Register qualified for the Olympic trials for hurdles in 1988 and 1992, he was flying high, seemingly set on a path to Olympic greatness – but a single missed step on a hurdle landing in 1994 saw him hyperextending his left knee, leading to the amputation of his left leg. His first thought after he recovered from surgery was how his role in society would change with his disability.

Register, who is at Expo 2020 as a supporter of the Disability Coalition, led by Kathryn Johnson at St Cloud State University, shifted to helping others find their “new normal,” joining the USA Olympic Committee in 2003 and founding the Paralympic Military Programme, which uses Paralympic sport opportunities to support wounded, ill, and injured American service members and veterans.

John Register said: “My focus is to promote the need for people with disabilities to always have a seat at the table when deciding future events. I also want to celebrate the great strides being made around the world. But we still need to go beyond the rhetoric of ‘this is the right thing for society to do’ and enter into an imperative mindset. It makes economic sense to honour the 15 per cent of those in the world with disabilities, and to invite us to the table to add seven trillion dollars in revenue. The greatest challenge is attitudinal barriers; however with sports, greater acceptance is achieved.”

Rahima Amiraly believes that acceptance can be achieved through instilling confidence and giving children of determination an opportunity to shine through her Dubai-based academy Rising Stars. In Amiraly’s nurturing hands, the academy, which helps disabled children develop their skills, has already proved life-changing for many Dubai families.

The third and final Rising Stars performance at Expo 2020 takes place on 3 December at the Opportunity Forum, under the initiative of Team Angel Wolf. With a motto to focus on talent and not labels, the inclusive academy has also garnered immense support from celebrities, such as two-time world boxing champion Amir Khan, who is known for breaking down barriers in sports.

Amiraly, who has worked in education for more than 12 years, including a role as a teacher at Dubai Centre for Special Needs, has long championed inclusivity.

Rahima Amiraly said: “At Rising Stars, we’ve created a safe space for the children to come to and share their talents, focusing on inclusive activities in a fun way like performing arts, music, dance, drama and poetry. We're all about sharing talents.”

“People need to think out of the box” was the wisdom that Muniba Mazari shared with guests at an event titled Pakistan – Connected Through Diversity at Jubilee Park this week. Mazari, who has used a wheelchair since a car accident 13 years ago, insisted it was time to break stereotypes – she also favours the word ‘differently-abled,’ over ‘disabled’.

Muniba Mazari said: “We live in a world which tends to celebrate sameness, where people see the world the way they want to see it – a world where people are labelled as ‘crippled’, ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled’. Let's change the narrative and replace these negative labels with positive words like ‘courageous’ and ‘resilient’.”

Mazari is Pakistan's first UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Pakistan's first wheelchair-bound female TV host, and has been recognised by Forbes 30 Under 30 and appeared in the top Muslim 500 list for two consecutive years in 2019 and 2020 – achievements she said only became possible when she accepted herself and her situation.

Mazari said: “My first introduction to a wheelchair user was when I saw a 12-year-old boy in a wheelchair for a polio campaign on the same channel, PTV, where I now work today. The boy’s father was sitting next to him and pleading to the public to please give polio drops to their children, otherwise they'd become like him. The way that little boy was objectified as an emblem of misery and mercy was appalling. When I ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I promised myself that I was going to change this narrative, because we are not to be pitied. We are very much alive. And, yes, I have a future.”


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