Roberta Blomster and Mary Kay Kennedy of St. Paul-based Advocating Change Together (ACT) joined 250 leaders from around the world in Doha, Qatar to attend the Third Annual International Forum on Disability. The forum was sponsored by the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs. “We met people from India, Africa, Lebanon, Russia, and more,” says Blomster.
“The Qatari people I met are very proud of their newly established Center for Children with Special Needs. It’s a school for kids with disabilities and the first of its kind in the region,” says Kennedy. “The model for the school was medical all the way: the teachers even wore lab coats.”
Kennedy reflects that while the segregated, medical-model services are not in line with what most disability rights actives would want, the Center still represents a positive change. The director of the Center, Dr. Saif al-Hajri is quoted as saying, “People in Qatar are finally starting to behave right, the family attitude is changing. Now they take the handicapped child to public malls and parks. This was not happening six or seven years ago.”
Shafallah International Forums (this being the third) are helping Doha put itself of the disability map. “They definitely have a strong interest in being leaders in disability and in playing a central role in bringing people together to address global issues,” says Kennedy. The focus of the conference changes from year to year; each annual gathering focuses on one aspect of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This year’s focus was on Article 30 which talks about participation in sports, culture and recreational activities for all.
ACT members were invited to participate in the forum by a Shafalla representative that they met at the United Nations last December. “One thing leads to the next,” says Kennedy. “This experience in Doha has opened ACT up to even more opportunities to be part of a global network of human rights workers. I guess it really is a small world after all.”