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Disabilities in the United Arab Emirates: Local Perceptions on the Label ‘People of Determination’

Language is a source of power and can be wielded as a tool to create and maintain disproportionate power structures to subordinate, exclude, and other particular identities, in this case, people who have disabilities or disability-related identities. It can be exhausting to debate the nitty-gritty of semantics. Still, ultimately one cannot deny the reality that language is an active force, the subtleties of which can explicitly shape the life experiences of people with disabilities. Choosing to label and address one way as opposed to another can make a world of difference in either enabling or condemning, glorifying or demeaning, liberating or repressing.

Globally, our definition of disabilities has expanded in tandem with the frameworks that we utilize to understand the experience and manifestation of disabilities in society. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), of which the UAE is a signatory, states that people with disabilities include “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” The UAE’s own laws use a slightly different language whereby “a person with special needs is someone suffering from a temporary or permanent, full or partial deficiency, or infirmity in his physical, sensory, mental, communication, educational, or psychological abilities to an extent that limits his possibility of performing the ordinary requirements as people without special needs.” Linguistically, there are two broad ways to define disabilities and disabled identities.

People-first language, or person-first language (PFL), is a type of linguistic prescription that places the person before their condition or diagnosis (i.e., saying ‘person with autism’ instead of ‘autistic person’). By highlighting what a person has instead of what they are, PFL aims to disassociate the disability as the primary defining characteristic of an individual so that disability is viewed as one of several features of the holistic individual. PFL arose against a backdrop of immense stigma against and dehumanization of disabilities, mostly through derogatory labeling, when the Americans with Disabilities Act came about in 1990. When addressing people with disabilities, PFL is considered the default and proper disability “etiquette” because it recognizes the individual’s personhood, first and foremost.

In contrast, identity-first language (IFL) positions disability as an identity category and emphasizes the disability in addressing the individual (i.e., saying ‘autistic person’ instead of ‘person with autism’). Because the identifying word comes first, it can be seen as embracing the disability identity and affirming that the disability is an inherent and perfectly acceptable part of a person’s identity. IFL emerged from the disability pride movement, which directly challenged systemic ableism and stigmatizing definitions of disability by acknowledging and honoring disabled identities.

Ultimately, the difference between these opposing perspectives boils down to whether a disability is something that you have or something that is an inherent part of your identity. In 2017, the UAE introduced a unique new terminology for all citizens and residents with disabilities - people of determination - at the launch of the National Strategy for Empowering People of Determination. This term was adopted to recognize the achievements of these people in various fields and with the view that determination and strong will can encourage people to overcome challenges and achieve their goals.

As much as language can be a unifying force, it can also be easily divisive. My intrigue about the nature of language and disability advocacy/perceptions in the country, coupled with how swiftly the landscape was evolving, convinced me to undertake an undergraduate thesis project exploring the topic. For close to a year, I carried out ethnographic work involving in-depth interviews with people of determination (POD), their allies, family members, and advocates. I also attended focus groups and public events and was a proverbial fly on the wall in online groups and discussion forums holding discourses on disabilities.

Over several encounters, one thing became evident: people had strong emotional reactions to the label people of determination. Their perceptions of the term varied but could broadly be classified in a dual manner as favoring the newly-instituted term and not favoring it. This classification rested primarily on notions of harm, empowerment, and personhood, as perceived by interviewees holding either view. One strong imperative for structuring my research analysis in this manner was to understand how people drew varying conclusions about the impact of the label POD despite sharing similar convictions that POD have historically been neglected and harmed and must be recognized and empowered as a people.

Approving the term:

  1. Harmful alternatives in Arabic and other languages

    Both English and Arabic have a long history of derogatory terms used to describe the differently-abled. The Arabic-speaking community most commonly used 'Mu'aaq' (معاق), a label that appears in both media and federal laws. Dubai's 2014 Law No. (2) regarding the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities referred to these people as 'Al'iieaqa' (the handicap), a word that shares its roots with 'Mu'aaq.' Elsewhere, an interviewee of mine once recounted the usage of a different term, 'Mutakhallifeen' (متخلفين), referring to someone as 'backward thinking.'

  2. The person, not the condition

    POD actively separates the person from their disability. Supporters of the term maintain that the addressee should be viewed as a human being first, and only then should consideration be given to any condition that they may have.
  3. Creating empowerment

    The term empowers individuals with disabilities to control their situation and advance in their lives. While this view assumes that POD exist in an undesirable situation that necessitates betterment, it highlights how the label is not dormant. Being called determined makes people be determined. Therefore, the determination ascribed to people with disabilities is not static and instead becomes an active force that is presumed to positively shape the lives of POD by encouraging them to progress and succeed.
  4. A modern wave of acceptance in the UAE

    The term POD is a signal of acceptance, the abandonment of prejudice and discrimination against disabled bodies, and the inclusion of the differently-abled in society. POD is considered innovative and signals a progressive approach to tackling disabilities in the UAE by shifting outdated language in a different, more inclusive direction.

Disapproving the term:

  1. Not disabled, not determined?

    POD as a defined category is in a dichotomous relationship with the undefined category of people who don't have a disability. No label exists for this non-disabled majority, but I have observed many different terminologies used, such as 'normal,' 'typical,' 'regular people,' and 'everyone else.' Part of the opposition to POD stems from the discomfort of not knowing how to address the unlabeled category and the explicit othering that manifests when people with disabilities have a specific label, whereas people without disabilities are merely people without disabilities.

  2. Determination, pity, and heroic expectations

    The POD label is only ascribed to an individual based on their condition and not any other action or personality trait, thereby demeaning the disabled individual. In other words, determination is a pity label. More damaging yet is how the label, with all its connotations of heroism, can create expectations for the POD to succeed and 'be more (determined).' It is particularly problematic when it comes to the question of whose standards we measure this determination against - the answer for some of my research subjects veered straight into the realm of ableism.

  3. Determination is a characteristic

    Determination is only one character trait that people with disabilities may hold, and even so, not all people with disabilities may have this skill. Thus, the current term is not comprehensive. It paints all people with disabilities with a broad brushstroke (whether they exhibit this skill/trait or not) and is a misnomer due to its lack of comprehensiveness and accuracy.

  4. Own the disability

    While some individuals embrace the term because it separates the disability from the person who has it, others oppose it precisely because of that reason. For them, the road to normalization and inclusion depends on open acknowledgment and ownership of the disability being an integral part of their identity.

As a disability researcher for over a year now, I have attended my fair share of workshops, discussions, conferences, and the like, which have shed light on various manifestations of disabilities in the UAE. These events have been well-attended by both people of determination and those without disabilities who advocate on their behalf. My biggest takeaway: ask, do not assume. Labeling an individual or group before asking for their preference of term robs them of independence. It is vital to give people the agency to decide how they want to be referred to, what associations with disability they want fostered, and how they want society to perceive them.


Hafsa Ahmed is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi and the Co-Founder of Peer-Minded. She holds a BA in Social Research and Public Policy with a minor in Public Health from NYU Abu Dhabi.

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