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Illustration by Baara Al Jorf

Physical Accessibility at NYU Abu Dhabi

A dive into the complexities of providing institutionalized support and accessibility to people of determination on campus.

Apr 19, 2020

In 2016, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum introduced the term “People of Determination” to describe people with special needs. In 2019, the UAE hosted the Special Olympics World Summer Games. From the policies that the UAE has introduced and the inclusive language it has embraced, it is apparent that people of determination have been at the center of the nation’s priorities. In the same spirit, NYU Abu Dhabi has been pushing for creating a campus that is safe, inclusive and accessible for everyone. However, many issues remain unaddressed and many challenges unconfronted.
When asked to comment on the state of accessibility at NYUAD, Goffredo Puccetti, Assistant Professor of Practice of Visual Arts, who teaches the core class “Wayfinding” relating to design and accessibility, said that “the practice stemmed the reflection of how badly the accessibility issue has been approached here. In a nutshell, we are incredibly late in developing a sensible approach to accessibility.”
“The number of design issues that actually prevent people of determination [from enjoying] the same experience that we all do … it’s staggering. There is just no excuse. We have resources, we have the capabilities. It’s just a matter of: do these things matter or not?” Puccetti added. “The way the campus is designed, as per today, it does actively discriminate. We are way behind the standard that you can find at any Lulu, any supermarket, any airport or bus station.”
This sentiment was echoed by several students who experience challenges navigating the physical complexities of daily life on the NYUAD campus.
“For someone that’s on a wheelchair, it’s very challenging. For someone who doesn’t have the ability to move their arms, it’s impossible to navigate … You really need to account for all kinds of abilities and these are not built for differently-abled students,” said Ana Karneža, Class of 2020, as she voiced her dissatisfaction with the semi-automatic doors installed on campus.
Karneža further shared, “The doors on the 2nd floor to the Baraha and Marketplace. Those are double doors that you also need to swipe in. For example, if I am holding like a tray in one hand … and driving with my other hand. There is no way I can swipe, drive and hold my food. Although I have done it, it takes great skill.”
Mohammad Ali, Class of 2021, who is visually impaired, shared with The Gazelle the difficulties he has faced in his time on the NYUAD campus. While appreciative of the support from staff members and especially public safety, as well as the larger student body, Ali felt there were systemic deficiencies in the way accessibility was approached by the institution, an example being that he had not been provided with a mobility trainer.
“A university like NYU Abu Dhabi, which is a big liberal arts college in the Gulf, should have on ground disability specialists for them to actually understand students and their demands in a much better manner,” Ali shared.
Ali also expressed his discontent with braille in elevators being erased at times and D2 not having a proper system for visually impaired students. When asked how he dealt with the latter issue, he shared that ADNH staff are always incredibly cooperative in assisting him.
Puccetti feels that NYUAD as an institution has a long way to go when it comes to accessibility. He spoke at length about the need for more ramps, efficient doors and tactile paths for the visually impaired. He stressed that these are the basics of accessibility and should be an institutional priority because “design mistakes, unfortunately, they are kind of silent, or dormant. They don’t shout ‘Look at me, I’m a mistake!’ They are there … [but we only realize] when it’s too late.”
While NYUAD is legally obliged to follow the UAE Federal law, the NYUAD Student Portal asserts that the university will make accommodation decisions consistent with U.S. law as per the Americans with Disabilities Acts, which lays out different obligations than the UAE Federal Law. Therefore, while the legalities surrounding US universities are starkly different, NYUAD should resemble U.S. universities. Puccetti observed that “we have in place the bare minimum in order to be compliant to UAE Federal law. Compliance to a law does not guarantee effectiveness from the user[’s] point of view.”
In addition to the lack of legal obligations and bureaucracy, another potential factor that might have slowed down the progress is the absence of an independent Moses Center on campus. Many students have voiced the need for a Moses Center for Students with Disabilities on the NYUAD campus. Currently, Aisha Al Naqbi, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Campus Life Initiatives, serves as NYUAD’s liaison for the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities and works in collaboration with the department at NYU New York to cater to students’ needs on a case by case basis. While Al Naqbi understands that there is a lot more to achieve in the accessibility sphere, she does not believe setting up a Moses Center on the NYUAD campus is an efficient way to resolve these issues, since most of the process is online anyway.
However, students on campus do not share the same line of reasoning as Al Naqbi. When questioned on the matter, Karneža spoke of the inherent differences that exist between the New York campus and the Abu Dhabi campus that make this an essential requirement. “Moses center at NYU Abu Dhabi is attached to New York, or referring to New York for everything. And if we are talking about equity and inclusion at NYU Abu Dhabi … I don’t think it’s very equitable for students to have to refer to New York’s rule … It’s just a very different place that would benefit from its own center and budget.”
Regarding accessibility related issues such as heavy semi-automatic doors and the lack of tactile paths for the visually impaired, Al Naqbi said, “Sometimes making those changes require time, require resources and financial support, which we can not sometimes … make it happen that fast. Whenever we have a request or a proposal, we try the best to deal with them as quickly as possible. Sometimes even when the decisions have been made, implementation can take time.”
Al Naqbi further stressed the difficulties of acquiring the right services and professionals in order to cater to specific needs due to the university’s geographical context.
At the same time, when it came to individualized support, Al Naqbi remarked, “What we are trying to do is to give students the skills to be self-sufficient instead of having someone that can guide them 24/7. That’s not sustainable and when they graduate they wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves.”
“Hopefully, in the future, we could provide more support in terms of training and [liaising]. Even having someone who can come here and provide physical support to students on campus,” she added.
While there is plenty to be achieved in the accessibility arena, plenty is going on behind the scenes. The Dean of Students Office is working on a new initiative that incentivizes peer support as well as providing disability training online to staff and faculty members. In addition to this, the library and assistive technology team have been working on providing special software and equipment that might be needed to ensure academic success for students with special needs.
In addition to this, the Student Government Diversity Committee and the Campus Spaces Committee have both been working in their capacities to channel student feedback relating to accessibility to the administration for the past semester.
“We are still a new campus and we are trying our best. Things like an open conversation with students and enquiring about the ways of moving forward, that’s what would make us progress in the future,” Al Naqbi said.
Vatsa Singh is Senior Features Editor. Email him at
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