Are public toilets in Dubai special needs-friendly? Not very.

Have a look at this first, then read on:


Whenever we go out, and Karan needs to use the bathroom, it’s often a problem because it’s almost always just me and Mom with him. He can’t go to a public toilet alone and needs someone with him. Now we can’t enter the male toilets obviously. That leaves the female toilets. The problem is getting a 15-year-old, almost 6-feet tall male in there. Mostly we rely on the kindnessand understanding of the women inside who say it’s okay to bring him in. However, going out does provide unnecessary complications when it comes to using the toilet.

I still remember this one time when we were in Deira City Centre a few years ago; we were near the cinemas when he wanted to use the toilet. We poked our head into the female toilet and saw a group of abaya-clad women there. We were a bit shy/hesitant to ask them if it was okay to bring Karan in because we felt perhaps they wouldn’t really be comfortable with the idea. Believe me, they were one of the most understanding and kind people we’ve met. Far from having a problem, they insisted we bring him in immediately, asked us more about him and even greeted him when he came in, even though he didn’t give any sign of noticing them.

Anyway, I went to Dubai Mall with my Mom and Karan, and he needed to go to the bathroom. So, we poked our head into the female restroom and saw that the handicapped/disabled stall was right the edge, which was a relief because it meant we didn’t have to go all the way in and would not encounter many women who may or may not have a problem with a 6-foot-tall man in front of them, no matter how innocent. Anyway… there was no one else in the restroom save an attendant and two women sitting on the bench that was at the entrance of the restroom. We walked in, and the attendant piped up…

Her: Ehh…no no no…what is this?
Me: Oh hello. Sorry but my brother has special needs and I need to take him to the toilet.
Her: No, no, take him out.
Me: He has autism and he cannot go to the toilet alone and he needs someone with him, so I need to take him into the handicapped stall.
Her: No, no NO! He go to male toilet.
Me: I cannot enter the male toilet and he needs someone to go with him. He has autism…special needs? He cannot go alone.
Her: No, take him out.
Me: *trying to stop my mother from an all-out battle* Look, I don’t care what you think, I’m going into the toilet with him, because he can’t go alone and like I said, he has autism and one of us HAS to go in with him.
Her: No…I…he cannot…
Me: Fine, call the management and I’ll talk to them.
Her: *silence* Okay, but go quickly.

Quickly????? I didn’t even bother thanking her for grudgingly letting us go in and took him in. Do I even want to go back to Dubai Mall again with my brother? No.

Public places like malls and parks need to realize that a massive special needs population exists in this city, and in the country. We’re here and we’re here to stay. They also need to realize that some children and adults with special needs have a caretaker/guardian of the opposite gender. If they need to go to the toilet, how can they go if it’s either male or female??? I implore the management of such places to think about us, because as it is we’re thrown at the fringe of society and this is just another thing that makes us dread going out. If your intention is to keep us shut behind four walls, congratulations, it’s working. It is absolutely imperative to have disabled toilets that are really independent of the male and female toilets. If you want to guard against anyone and everyone using the toilet, have an attendant in each bathroom have a key or something, and give it only to those who really need a unisex washroom (for example, someone who has a special needs issue whether physical or mental, and their opposite gender guardian). Knowledge Village has unisex handicapped toilets near the male/female ones, why can’t everyone else?

We get well-meaning people (but those who don’t know what they’re talking about) to “take Karan outside”. Yes, we’ll take him. But how do we integrate into society if we’re denied the basic right of using a toilet? 

Grace App for autism free on World Autism Awareness Day, 2 April 2011


Screenshot of Grace App; supplied by Lisa Domican

We’ve recently ordered an iPad2 for Karan, having heard a lot about how apps are being used to encourage people with autism to communicate. My brother is non-verbal, which means he does not talk to communicate with us. He has a few signs, but a lot of times we guess what he wants, based on cues or routines.

I’ve heard about a lot of apps on the iPad/iPhone for people with autism and this is one of them – and it’s going to be available for free on April 2 2011, which is World Autism Awareness Day.

Lisa Domican is a mother of two children with autism. Her daughter Gracie is severely autistic girl who doesn’t speak a lot but uses pictures to communicate. Lisa explains the concept of using pictures well: “Many kids with autism or speech delay use pictures attached to a board to ask for what they need or say how they feel. These boards are stored in a book which they have to carry around with them. Even if and when they begin to say a few words, they may be difficult to understand and so they rely on a growing picture vocabulary which can become very unwieldy.”

She says, “I wanted to keep supporting her speech development by prompting her to use her own voice – with the support of her pictures anywhere.”

She developed Grace App for this purpose and explains how it works: 

Grace App replicates the picture exchange system by storing a basic picture vocabulary of Foods, Things I like, Places, Colors, Sizes and Shapes on an iPhone with a function for creating a sentence. It can also be used on iPod Touch and iPad. On the smaller devices you tilt and the cards are enlarged for you to point and read together. iPad works on Landscape or Portrait view with the pictures big enough to be read easily without enlargement. There is also a facility for finding, taking and sharing photographs of all the other things that you may need or want. You can sort the pictures into categories, delete those you don’t need and teach the child or user to add their own independently – giving them power over their communication choices.

The app was created with the support of O2 Telefonica and developed by Steven Troughton-Smith. Grace App was awarded a United Nations, UNGAID sponsored World Summit Award for m- Learning and Education in 2010.

So those interested in trying out the app can consider getting it on April 2 2011 when it will be available on the iTunes store for free. Once you have the app (whether you’ve downloaded it for free or bought it) you will be able to get whatever updates the app undergoes in the future. A major update will also be launched soon.

Lisa says, “My goal is to engage and inform as many educators, therapists, parents, carers and service providers about Grace App and hopefully as a result, get the gift of independent expression to as many people with Autism and other disabilities as possible. Everyone should have the right to say what they want. My aim is for them to get it!”

I think it would be interesting to see how users can customize the pictures to get the person with autism to communicate with a familiar photo. I know that when I try this app out I’d love to add our own pictures, just so that Karan has a sense of familiarity and it hopefully won’t be too hard for him to understand how to use the app. Last night, while we were getting ready to sleep, he pulled me downstairs and signed for food, then tried to open the fridge, then signed for toilet and ran back upstairs. It’s times like these I’d like to know what he really wanted. So fingers crossed, that apps like this one will clear up communication channels between us.

For more information, check

Disclaimer: I was contacted by Lisa regarding the app; I endorse her efforts to help people with autism. I have not tried the app myself, but will be doing so once I get the iPad2 I’ve ordered.

Remember #autism even after #DubaiTwestival

At Dubai Twestival, I was given the wonderful opportunity to speak for a few minutes about autism, given my personal interest in it. I remember having a vague idea – a bullet point list if you will – of things I wanted to cover in the 2-4 minutes I was allotted. Problem was, once I started talking…well, autism is something I can talk about for ages, so I went along my own meandering path, going wherever my synapses were telling me to go.

So…now that I can put pen to paper (or fingers-to-keyboard-to-screen) and try not to get distracted emotionally (as I did in the middle of what I was saying at Twestival…remembering how society in general has treated us sometimes was painful), here’s what I want to say to everyone reading… 

As I mentioned while talking, the awareness among people in Dubai about special needs and autism is appalling. It really is. Granted, there is so much more awareness over the last few years…but remember, I’ve been around in Dubai for dog’s years. I was here when Karan was diagnosed, I was here in the late 1990s when there was no help for us, I was here in the 2000s when we’ve faced problems over getting him into a good school. The general public just doesn’t know what it is. Either they’ve never heard of autism, or they have some fandangled opinions about it. The textbook definition will tell you that autism is a lifelong developmental disability where the person has impaired communication skills and social interaction, and can indulge in repetitive behaviour or be obsessed with something. It’s true enough. However, there are so many other issues…readers of this blog will know we’ve dealt with non-verbal issues (Karan does not speak to communicate with us), clothing issues, food issues, self-help issues and so much more.

One VERY important thing: if you’ve met one person with autism…you’ve met one person with autism. Each person with autism comes with their own set of unique challenges. The standard definition is like an umbrella, if you will. While that definition holds true, you’ll find n-number of differences with each autistic person who overcome completely different obstacles.

Now I’d like to appeal to organizations and businesses within the community. With the current rates of autism (1 in 110 globally, think it’s 1 in 100 in UK, lower in other places), within the next 5-10 years, we, the society, will have on our hands a massive number of adults with autism. It’s an employment resource just waiting to be tapped (and here I acknowledge that sadly, there are some adults whose autism is severe enough that they cannot work throughout their lives). Like in the neuro-typical (NT) world (or all you so-called “normal” people out there), it works the same here: if you’re good at something, that’s where you would like to get some work. Just because a person has special needs doesn’t mean they cannot be a productive member of society. It is so important for people with special needs – not monetarily, mind you – to have a sense of self-respect and self-worth (and goodness knows a major chunk of society gives them no respect whatsoever). Employment is a way of enhancing self-esteem and self-worth, and gives dignity and acceptance to anyone. I know of a couple of organizations in the UAE that do take on interns with special needs and give them jobs, as part of a social responsibility program. My brother’s school is heavily involved in placing their older students with organizations such as banks and hotels. Students are also encouraged to focus on an activity that they are good at and can hold them in good stead when it comes to future employment. Yes, it’s a little bit of extra work, and extra training… but trust me, organizations will find that once the person knows what he/she has to do, they will not stop at anything to get it done for you. Think about it.

So please… don’t forget about autism. It’s here to stay… it’s the so-called NTs that need to adjust.

Donate books to help raise funds for special needs school


I’m blogging to appeal for book donations. Manzil, a centre for special needs children, which is based in Sharjah, is planning to host a book sale sometime in June (I don’t have exact dates yet) to raise funds for their school.

My brother has been going to their school for quite some time now, and has made tremendous leaps and strides towards being able to care for himself. Their school isn’t as large as some of the more commonly known special needs institutions out there in the UAE, which is why they’re probably more in need of funds and support. They do great work and have a lovely, qualified staff who take pride in what they do.

If anyone has any books they’d like to donate, it’s terribly easy. Autism & Us has partnered up with TwitBookClub to host this tweetup: Books for … Manzil. We’re collecting books to donate to Manzil to feature in their booksale. #ManzilBooks makes it easier for the Twitter community to gather and donate their books for a good cause. And when the booksale is being hosted in June, they’re expecting to have 10,000 books to sell, so I’ll put up another twtvite closer to time. Books and charity…it all goes rather well together!

So anyone cleaning out their bookcases, get over to the twtvite page and RSVP immediately!

Thank you.