(JNS) – Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel recently posted an important notice on your door: “Do not disturb – I’m in Dubai.” Rimon’s two extended meetings and webinars in one day with colleagues in the United Arab Emirates offer an important insight into the ongoing cooperation between the inclusion communities for disabled people in both countries.
Rimon started her day at Access Israel’s Hod Hasharon offices. She participated in the two-day virtual week for tolerance and inclusivity at Expo 2020 in Dubai. The aim of the conference was to “work together as global citizens to foster a better shared understanding of more inclusive societies” and “to reconsider how social spaces, physical environments and storytelling styles can be more inclusive and encourage more multiculturalism and coexistence”. She participated in a panel with five colleagues from around the world who deal with disability. The panel was titled “Accessibility Spotlight: The Value of Difference”.
Ayesha Saeed Husaini (LinkedIn via JNS)
Minutes after the discussion, Rimon was back at Zoom, this time with her colleague and new friend from the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Ayesha Saeed Husaini, founder and director of Manzil, a non-profit organization based in Sharjah. She founded the first self-help group in the UAE in 1999 and founded Manzil in 2005 to help people with disabilities with inclusion, employment, social assistance, counseling and research.
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Israel and the United Arab Emirates recently signed the Abrahamic Accords, signed in Washington, DC, on September 15th and ratified by the Knesset on October 15th. The United Arab Emirates became the third Arab country, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, to agree to officially normalize its relationship with Israel – the first country on the Persian Gulf.
While the relationship is formally still in its infancy, Husaini and Rimon actually met in person before the countries had formal relationships – in February 2020 in Austria at the Zero Project Conference, which was attended by those responsible for accessibility and organizations from all over the world.
“My first real memory of Michal was breakfast at Zero Project,” said Husaini. “Someone said, ‘You have to meet Michal!'”
Rimon, an ambassador for the project, was immediately interested in Husaini: “She was incredibly helpful, took me from table to table and introduced me to people.”
Although they knew they could not continue their relationship at face-to-face meetings in their home countries at this point, they remained determined.
“We discussed what options we have [had]”Rimon recalled.
Little at the time, Rimon had no idea that Israel and the UAE would be signing historic agreements in a few months.
Husaini and Rimon have both recognized careers advocating for and developing programs for people with disabilities. In the late 1990s, Husaini learned the stigma they felt of being siblings with disabilities from students in the university classes she taught. She started a family support group and started volunteering with her students.
“I had to start somewhere,” she said, arguing that she could start changing attitudes in her country if she started with the younger generation.
Husaini continued to spread disability awareness and founded Manzil in 2005. Soon after, the UAE began changing its laws to include people with disabilities.
“UAE lawmakers have always been very open-minded,” she said. “The challenge was not in government, but in being at an early stage. We needed more professionals and best practices. “
The process of greater involvement in the UAE has been actively promoted by Husaini and her colleagues. Husaini serves as governor for inclusion on several advocacy committees and boards. In 2005, she implemented a “reverse inclusion” approach in Manzil, inviting people without disabilities to participate in programs for people with disabilities.
“We got a lot of attention in the media and from people in government,” she said. The UAE’s Law No. 29 to protect the rights of people with disabilities, passed in late 2006, has finally given wings to their inclusion project.
Israel passed an equality law in 1994, and in 2005, around the same time the UAE was passing similar laws, Israel passed an accessibility clause that requires every ministry to legislate to require accessibility. Access Israel was founded the same year to raise awareness and support the implementation of the accessibility laws.
Yuval Wagner. (Photo via JNS)
Rimon speaks with admiration and appreciation for the founder of Access Israel, Yuval Wagner. As a wheelchair user, he asked to meet the CEO of a large cinema chain in Israel and expressed concern about the lack of accessibility in eleven theaters. The CEO was impressed with Wagner’s professional response and strong business model for accessibility. As Wagner said, “An accessible business is a more profitable business.”
In the early years of Access Israel they looked at physical accessibility and then social accessibility. Rimon, like Husaini, turned to working with young children.
“Kindergarten students learned that people with disabilities are like everyone else and that inclusion accepts everyone and treats them equally,” she said.
Now Husaini and Rimon have an unprecedented opportunity to move forward together.
“I’ve spent many a sleepless night dreaming about all the different ways of working together,” said Husaini. “There is so much potential, so much synergy between the two organizations. There are so many similarities. When the skies are open we are ready to fly. “
Rimon added, “The excitement is there. The sky is the limit. We can do amazing things together. “
Fred J. Maahs Jr., President of FJM Solutions, Chief Operations Officer of Travel for All, and Editor of Melange, Accessibility for All, is excited about the potential of this relationship.
“I am overjoyed that Israel and the UAE have signed a peace agreement that will restore business relationships, direct flights, tourism and even the exchange of best practices at some levels,” he said. “As a disabled person who uses a wheelchair, I hope that both countries share what works and what doesn’t when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities.
“The UAE is abundant in resources,” he added, “and using them, along with advice from experts around the world, to make the UAE the most accessible travel destination in the world. They are able to share their financial and other resources with Israel, which is struggling to some extent with a budget, especially when it comes to accessibility. However, this does not minimize Israel as a resource for the UAE. “
According to Maahs, Israel has done an excellent job of making more modern cities like Tel Aviv and ancient cities like Jerusalem, including its holy sites, largely accessible. And they did it with far less financial support. “Both can learn from each other,” he said.
Maahs is in the United Arab Emirates this month to meet and hopes to attend the next Access Israel conference in Israel.
Laura Kam, president of Kam Global Strategies, an Israel-based communications company that works with clients and media in the UAE, said: “Building really deep bonds between Israel and the UAE is not just about doing business, but about relationships between civilians come social groups. “
“Individuals who come together to work on solutions to disability-related problems,” added Kam, “will develop bonds that are personal in nature – not just transactional – that are the kind of relationships that are strongest and longest lasting are . ”
James A. Lassner, Executive Director of Friends of Access Israel, found the recent Zoom meeting with Husaini and Rimon meaningful and another step in forging relationships between the two organizations and countries.
“The blessing of peace brings many seeds with it,” he said. “It is humbling to be part of a warm bond that is beginning to blossom between Manzil and Access Israel based on a shared goal of not leaving anyone behind.”PJC