When Ayukta Thakur traveled to Dubai for vacation in 2012, she planned to stay for one month. Instead, she never left, and wound up creating the first ever program for young adults with special needs in the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates.
Her plan to create the program took shape shortly after she arrived in Dubai. She started volunteering at a special needs school run by the government there and met parents who kept asking the same question: What’s next for my child?”
Thakur decided that she could not leave Dubai without providing an answer to parents whose children become too old to remain in special education programs. After conducting focus groups with parents of children with special needs in order to discover what everyday skills their children need to thrive, Thakur, her sister, and a friend obtained a license to create their own program.
In 2017, they opened the Integreat Center for Special Needs, which helps young adults with special needs develop the life skills and vocational training required to live independently.
“We see lots of students with potential, but they’re too dependent on their families,” said Thakur, who graduated from Northeastern in 2012 with a degree in communications. “We give them the platform to practice life skills in safe environments.”
Students begin the program at the center by learning how to do everyday tasks on their own, including buying groceries, crossing the street, and managing their money. By the end of the program, which lasts four years, many of the students, aged 16 to 25, land internships in various industries, including hospitality, retail, and education.
To fund the program that helps students learn to better manage their money, Thakur formed a partnership with Emirates NBD. The bank also helps to match students with a selection of employers in the Emirates, including Choithrams, a supermarket chain, and Boutique 1, a clothier.
“Our first batch of students just started their first internships, and it’s amazing to see how the community is finally responding and integrating these individuals,” said Thakur. “Our students are excited and they really do have skill sets and we’re monitoring to see how successful they are.”
Thakur cited statistics that spell out the need for programs such as hers. Dubai’s Community Development Authority estimated that 13,000 people in the city were living with disabilities in 2014, a number that is expected to grow to 17,000 by 2020.
She was recently selected to be a Board Member of the Special Olympics UAE organizing committee, which is planning the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi.
“Seeing how hard they work and how happy they are to come to the center brings so much positivity. Their energy and vibe pushes you,” said Thakur. “These students really do have potential, they’ve just never been given the opportunity.”