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Dr. Jennifer Camulli on Autism, Inclusion, Accessibility and Expo 2020 Dubai

Dr. Jennifer Camulli has over 30 years’ experience in working with and advocating for people with disabilities. Her previous roles include Certified Accessibility Consultant, Certified Educational Therapist and Head of Inclusion.

She is currently leading the efforts to place accessibility at the heart of planning for Expo 2020 Dubai, the first World Expo to take place in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia region. Running from 1 October 2021 until 31 March 2022, Expo 2020 is a global gathering dedicated to bringing together people, communities and nations to build bridges, inspire action and deliver real-life solutions to real-life challenges.

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April is World Autism Awareness Month, dedicated to increasing awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder. Is it possible for someone to be autistic and not know it? 

Yes, absolutely. Many people do not know they have autism until they receive an official diagnosis. And even then, if they are very young, they may not know or fully understand what autism means until they are older, or if there is moderate to severe intellectual impairment, they may never really understand it. It’s also becoming increasingly common for adults to come forward for self-referral if they suspect that some of the social and communication challenges they have had since a young age can possibly be accounted for with a diagnosis of autism.

How effective is inclusive education?

Like any process or service, it is only as good as the people delivering it. Globally, there are different approaches to inclusive education, often because of varying levels of awareness, different cultural perspectives, and both the ability and willingness to adapt teaching methods and curriculum content.

 What are some of the key variables for the successful implementation of inclusive education?

To begin with, if inclusive education isn’t mandated by the relevant authorities, schools may opt to either not offer it at all or be selective in their admission offers. Equally, if a school’s leadership team isn’t fully committed to the principles of inclusive education, its implementation and practice will also suffer.

It’s also incredibly important to ensure that each and every student has the opportunity to experience success at school, no matter what that looks like. Everyone deserves the right to achieve – it’s tied so intrinsically to the concept of dignity and self-worth. For example, allowances should be made for students to advance with their peers and participate in graduation ceremonies. Even if a student hasn’t met the criteria to officially graduate, they can still be presented with a certificate of achievement and celebrate with their classmates. The need to belong is strong, and schools need to enable this.

 What are some of the critical steps for building an inclusive workplace?

Successful inclusive workplaces are those that foster a collaborative work environment, where everyone has a voice. Consultation with the disabled person on what accommodations s/he may need in the workplace, including the option to work from home, facilitates empowerment and trust. Employees should also be provided with regular training on engaging with colleagues with disabilities and it’s a particularly powerful statement when an organisation has a dedicated Inclusion Team, or a group of Inclusion Champions. Consideration should also be given to providing accessible communication for physical and virtual meetings where required, such as live captioning.

What is the theme of Expo 2020 and when/where in Dubai will it be held?

At Expo 2020 Dubai, you’ll experience the world in one place – a global gathering dedicated to bringing together people, communities and nations to build bridges, inspire action and deliver real-life solutions to real-life problems. Expo’s theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ is underpinned by three subthemes – Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability – that we believe are the three key drivers of human progress and prosperity, and are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Expo 2020 will take place in Dubai between 1 October 2021 and 31 March 2022, on an incredible 4.38 sqkm site in Dubai South. Dubai is easily reached by sea, air or land, and Expo will be well-served by public transport, including the world-class Dubai Metro and dedicated Expo Rider bus service.

How easy will it be for people of determination to navigate their way around the Expo? What are some of the accessibility services and features that will be in place for them?

People of determination have been a key priority in our planning from the very beginning and we’ve made sure to include a number of measures to enable them to navigate the site easily and safely, to enjoy an incredible visitor experience.

For example, we’ve installed 14 tactile maps around the site which will provide raised and embossed images of the area nearest to them as well as audio output and braille. And we have also developed our PODium app, in collaboration with SAP, an Official Premier Partner of Expo 2020. The app provides 3-D visual mapping, audio navigation and haptic feedback to assist visitors with these needs. Our Thematic Pavilions also have tactile maps to assist visitors in understanding the environment around them. There are 15 Information Centres across the site and an additional seven Information Kiosks that can provide important information to all our visitors.

In addition to this, we’ve also created four Quiet Rooms on site, with innovative sensory equipment and relaxation areas for any visitor experiencing sensory overload or anxiety, and we will offer ear defenders and sunglasses for visitors with sensory sensitivities. We have developed social stories that will be downloadable from the Expo 2020 website that provide sensory information on the different Expo visitor experiences and will provide ‘Sunflower Lanyards’ on request for those who wish to discretely signal that they have a hidden disability. We are proud to say that these efforts have been recognised by the International Board of Sensory Accessibility, and as we get ready to mark World Autism Awareness Day on 1 April, Expo 2020 is set to be officially named as a Sensory Accessible Event – a first for a World Expo and a first in the entire Middle East.

For our hearing- or vision-impaired visitors specifically, we have installed hearing induction loops at key locations across the site and created service dog relief areas. There will be 3-D tactile models of our flagship architecture, and scannable codes for self-guided experiences narrated through sign language, audio description and written captions.

In addition, tickets will be available free of charge for all people of determination and at half price for their companion.

What is the relationship between the ecogenic domain (built environment), technogenic domain (digital environment), sociogenic domain (social environment) and the sensorigenic domain (sensory environment) and how they are collectively incorporated into the Expo setting to make it more accessible?

Typically, accessibility is approached from either a built-environment perspective based on standards of Universal Design, or a digital environment perspective, for example accessible websites that comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These are often done in isolation of one another and focused on standards and codes only. This approach risks missing out on what visitors really need. The holistic approach I refer to merges four domains to achieve a more rounded and inclusive experience.

At Expo 2020, it began with community engagement, which was key to understanding the various journeys that people of determination may take to visit Expo 2020 Dubai. We held accessibility forums that allowed us to hear directly from stakeholders and understand how we can offer them a seamless experience. Our approach is based on the principle of ‘nothing for them without them’.

In taking a more holistic approach, we considered the visitor journey in its entirety, all the way from planning their visit (website accessibility) to arriving in Dubai (accessible services at the airport) and arriving at Expo 2020 via accessible means of transport. This means looking at the social environment (inclusive hiring practices, staff training etc), the built environment (the physical site), the digital environment (our website, apps and digital interfaces) and the sensory environment (quiet rooms, social stories etc.) in parallel and with equal weighting.

How accessible a city is Dubai?

Dubai published the Dubai Universal Design Codes in 2017 and the government has worked quickly to ensure its implementation – this has included retrofitting government buildings and adapting digital platforms and public spaces.

For our many visitors, all major hotels offer accessible suites, the Dubai Metro system is fully accessible, there are accessible taxis, and many restaurants will offer provisions if a visitor advises them in advance. People of determination, including those who are tourists, can avail free parking passes from the Roads and Transport Authority and discounts and privileges from the Community Development Authority’s Sanad card. Entrance fees to a range of visitor attractions are waived for people of determination, including Expo 2020 Dubai. And Emirates Airline boasts dozens of inflight movies with audio description and captions, making the journey to Dubai more accessible.

We have to remember that accessibility is a journey not a destination – it takes time and budgeting to implement for business owners, venues, and spaces. Most tourist venues have provisions in place, while others have established a plan for retrofitting over a time span. Historical areas are more difficult because the integrity of a building has to be maintained and a strategic plan needs to be developed in consultation with accessibility professionals. Nonetheless, in three years, huge strides have been taken.

When travel and tourism began its “reboot” post-COVID, would you say that Dubai is ready for the potential influx of travellers with disabilities who may be visiting, especially after the Expo is over?

Dubai was one of the first cities to reopen to the world last summer, and across the UAE, the authorities have taken clear and decisive action to protect the safety and well-being of all citizens, residents and visitors. For people of determination specifically, the ‘Rest Assured’ initiative was introduced to provide specialised support for the challenges raised by the pandemic.

The health and safety of everyone at Expo 2020, including our workforce, participants and visitors, has always been our first priority in our planning and operations, and the global health challenges of the past 12 months have put this into even sharper focus. We continue to work closely with the relevant local and international authorities to implement and uphold best practice, including capacity control, social distancing, thermal scanners, sanitisation procedures and the vaccination of our workforce.

When we open our doors to the world on 1 October, we will be ready to offer an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for every visitor, from every walk of life, from every country. It is our ambition that our industry-leading efforts to provide a fully inclusive event will be an important part of the Expo’s long-term legacy, both regionally and internationally.

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