Enabling the Disabled

T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR –
MUSCAT, JAN 27 –

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The blue waters at Qantab turned quite gentle in the mid-day sun. Tariq Jawad al Khabori waited in anticipation. Time elapsed. And, suddenly they — divers with disabilities — surfaced from underwater. Tariq smiled to himself: mission accomplished.
It was the first time those disabled men were able to experience real diving in the open sea, thanks to Oman Disabled Divers (ODD), and the Dive Challenge event for the Disabled, organised by ODD.
ODD — cofounded by Tariq al Khabori and StefanieTrier in 2009 — has raised the spirits of the disabled in Oman over the years.
In fact Tariq’s story is inextricably linked to the chequered story of the disabled in Oman, and also their struggles towards empowerment. And Tariq was never alone in fighting for the cause of the disabled: Raya Saif Sultan al Riyami, Barka S al Bakri, Shaikh Hilal al Amri, Dr Waheed al Kharusi, Shaikh Saud al Rawabi, and Shaikh Ahmed al Rahbi are some of the noble souls who always stood up for the disabled in Oman.

swim4Whether the (clichéd) social stigma or taboo associated with disability has completely disappeared from the Sultanate is debatable; but the reality is disability still remains a social and economic challenge in the Sultanate. According to the Census 2010, nearly 3.2 per cent of Omanis are disabled, while a more recent statistics from the National Centre of Statistics and Information indicates that there are more than 60,000 persons with disabilities in Oman.
The government has been doing its best to ensure that people with disabilities are well taken care of. Measures include the Welfare Act and the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons; ratification of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; Regulations for the establishment of rehabilitation centres and issuance of disabled cards; and the National Committee for the care of the disabled. The Ministry of Manpower even facilitates employment for the disabled.
Also, the work of several organisations helped raise awareness in the society about the need to accept people with disabilities.

tariqBut it was a different story a few decades back. Life was quite tough for the disabled, then. And it was the likes of Tariq al Khabori, Raya and Barka who turned the society’s focus on the deplorable state of the disabled in the Sultanate, fighting all odds.
However, it was Tariq who proved that there can be an enjoyable and active life for the disabled under water, by providing them opportunities for swimming, snorkeling and scuba-diving. “Under water, the disabled are like any other physically able human beings. Diving is a therapy in itself,” says Tariq, who was instrumental in launching the innovative Dive Challenge for the Disabled in 2009. Until then no one ever imagined that the disabled can dive. At the most recent four-day Dive Challenge event in August 2016, as many as 42 children and youth with various disabilities participated in diving and swimming at the Marina Bandar al Rowdha. The Dive Challenge is supported by the International Association for Handicapped Divers (IAHD) and the International Disabled Divers Association (IDDA), and also the Ministries of Sports Affairs and Social Development, and the National Youth commission. While Gulf Divers LLC is ODD’s major partner, Eurodivers provides the much needed technical support.
The first dive challenge event was held in 2009 at Oman Dive Center in Qantab, Muscat. Ever since, several dive challenges were held across Oman in Salalah, Nizwa, Sur, Muscat and Sohar, offering aquatic therapy to the disabled, including children and adults aged 10-60 years.
At the ODD-Dive Challenge in 2012, as many as 15 visually challenged Omani men went for scuba diving for the first time, at Marina Bandar al Rowdha. “It was quite an achievement,” says Tariq.
ODD has already trained a few Omani divers, and one is running diving courses for the disabled in Oman. “We need to move beyond charity, and provide real time opportunities for the disabled to experience life, and this is what we do at ODD,” says Tariq.
ODD’s efforts at empowering the disabled were appreciated by the president of the Austrian Society for Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine Dr Roswitha Prohaska. Commenting on the Nizwa dive challenge 1n 2011, where 58 disabled people participated, she wrote: “We don’t have such big events for the handicapped in Austria…Diving physicians could learn much from it. ODD should be a role model for other countries.”
Dr Roswitha presented the outcome of the diving events at the EUBS (European Underwater and Baromedical Society) in Poland in August 2011. Unfortunately, though Tariq was invited to the EUBS event, he could not attend it.
Tariq also published two magazines, as part of fund-raising to support the disabled. Through his intervention many received wheel chairs and braille devices.
Tariq, for now, is busy planning the next Dive Challenge scheduled for April. Over three decades of intense and demanding work at empowering the disabled has not diminished his enthusiasm even a bit.