COMMENT: The new dynamics of businesses and disability in the Middle East


Writing for the Business Disability Forum, Aya Abdullah Jibreal is a senior inclusive design and accessibility consultant at Qaderoon Business Disability Network.

She became interested in accessibility after taking a “Human Factors” course back in university in 2007 and here looks into how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the dynamic in the middle east.

Here’s what she had to say:

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In less than eight months, COVID-19 has made a major impact on businesses in the Middle East, much like most countries in the world. Some businesses are struggling to survive the financial impact of lockdown, and some have witnessed a surge in this time.

Either way, there is no doubt COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of the market, altered customer demands and reshaped work environments.

Naturally, this has trickled down to 60 million persons with disabilities in the Arab region. As a consultant for various businesses regarding inclusion and accessibility in the Middle East, let me share with you what I have identified as the new set of challenges and opportunities in the business market here.

Currently, some people with disabilities are now facing new barriers in light of this pandemic, for example, Given their health, they may be more likely to develop health complications.

On the other hand, while millions of people in the Middle East may still have to undergo the lockdown measures, it has given them the opportunity to experience what it is like for persons with disabilities to have limited access to work, information, social services, health care, social inclusion, and education. And so, accessibility, while a human right, has started to resonate in more people’s minds as an issue of safety, rather than a ‘nice’ added feature to any business.

These new variables have encouraged governments in various parts of the Middle East to pursue policies and adopt measures aimed at facilitating their citizens’ access to public spaces, workplaces, and others in light of the current circumstances. Governments in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, and Oman worked on initiatives like:

  • Activating disability-related policies in the health and labour market sectors.
  • Developing digital platforms for education.
  • Digitalizing many governmental services.
  • Activating national teleworking policies and processes.
  • Allocating funds to support employed citizens’ salaries.
  • Allocating funds to support small and sole proprietorships.

While these initiatives have greatly escalated the issue of accessibility and pinned it as a priority for businesses globally, there is still an issue of adopting proper physical and digital accessibility standards.

Many Businesses in the Middle East are still not aware of how to implement accessibility in their work environments, products, and services. Some businesses do beat the “Accessibility” drum, yet without ensuring the effectiveness of what they adopted as accessibility measures.

Other businesses still depend on ad-hoc solutions and still do not address the inclusion of persons with disabilities strategically. This is where governments need to take urgent steps to implement accessibility laws and standards along with ensuring that they are properly adopted by businesses and entities from all sectors.

Moreover, with policies requiring social isolation to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, people with mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, may experience significant distress.

Government policies should ensure that community services are sustainable and that crisis counselling programmes are available to all. Disrupting community services should not lead to the institutionalization of persons with disabilities and the elderly.

Today, both Governments and businesses should consider including employees and customers with disabilities not only as a right but as a safety measure just like our masks and social distancing. The business case for disability inclusion has become stronger than ever and smart businesses will take this opportunity to run this very competitive and harder than ever race for survival.

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Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas

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