Portrait of a Nation: the Expo 2020 trailblazer focused on ability, not disability

Salem Bawazir wants to change mindsets of the young generation about people with disabilities

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The first person with special needs to land a job with Expo 2020 Dubai is on a mission to inspire others to put ability before disability.

Emirati Salem Bawazir now has a global platform to share the inclusive outlook which has shaped his life – and he is already putting his opportunity to good use.

The 47-year-old, who was found to have cerebral palsy as a child, was hired as a human resources administrator last year and now leads an inclusion programme tasked with recruiting and training people with disabilities.

He has already helped select six new employees, with disabilities ranging from visual to hearing impairments, to work in the photography, finance, visitor experience and administration sections of the vast Expo team as preparations gather pace for the landmark event’s grand opening in October.

Mr Bawazir enjoys talking to people and does not allow the neurological condition, which severely limits his movement, muscle coordination and speech to stop him.

“Forget about our disability, focus on our ability. That is what I tell people,” he told The National.

Since I joined Expo I started to think about (the) new generation. The important thing is they see our abilities. People have to be aware we are human too.”

Mr Bawazir enthusiastically interacted with a team from The National at the Expo 2020 Dubai South office.

Asking them to gather around his desk, he used the end of a pencil to navigate the keyboard and opened up screens to show his graphic design work.

His journey to Expo is an indication of his determination. Fluent in Arabic and English, Mr Bawazir is self-taught.

He previously worked for a books and stationary company, a hospitality firm and even started a small graphic design business.

His keenness to engage has won him friends and the respect of colleagues.

“My wish for the future is to see more people of determination join the workforce, as we are a part of the community, and for their families to encourage any efforts they make to venture out of their comfort zones,” he wrote in an emailed response.

“Being the first person of determination employed at Expo 2020 brings immense joy to me. Having the ability to change people’s thoughts about our community brings me great happiness.”

Abu Dhabi’s successful hosting of the Special Olympics last year highlighted the positive change in attitudes to people of disabilities in the Emirates in recent years.

Authorities have pledged to create infrastructure to improve access to parks and outdoor areas, while an increasing number of employers are hiring people with disabilities.

Fatima Alloghani, head of the Expo Academy and Emiratisation, said Mr Bawazir’s colleagues have benefited from having Mr Bawazir onboard.

“Changing physical access for people of determination to come to work is good but that is not enough,” she said.

“Our employees are learning to communicate better. Salem has taught us to be more tolerant, understanding, observant of another person’s thinking and point of view.”

Mr Bawazir has proved himself by rising from a trainee to making a difference.

“He is learning about managing, taking decisions, being accountable,” she said.

“There have been amazing advancements for him.”

He works closely with the accessibility, health and safety and construction teams to ensure people with disabilities and the elderly can make the most of the Expo experience.

Complimentary electric and manual wheelchairs will be available across the site and workers will be available to push wheelchairs if required from the car park to the site.

Four quiet rooms have been allocated for visitors who cannot deal with excessive sensory stimulation.

An idea Mr Bawazir came up with to highlight safety information and details of exit, entry and restroom facilities is being developed by SAP, a German software company as a mobile application for Expo visitors with special needs.

He hopes seeing more people with disabilities at work will spark conversations.

“We are a part and not apart from the community. We need to create a new generation that is aware of this fact,” he wrote.

“Sadly, due to a lack of education or knowledge, most people think that we have limited abilities and few human needs, and that anyone with a disability is mentally impaired. I would like us to work together to create a new, high-minded and conscious generation that believes in equality and opportunity for all.

“Whether you’re a person of determination or not, we are all human beings and therefore equal in everything.”

Source: The National