Two parents, one child, 12 teachers. That was a lot to squeeze into the principal's office at Cambridge High School in Musaffah two days before the start of school last year. Most of the teachers had to stand. My husband and I told them about our daughter, who has cerebral palsy and a hearing impairment and had never been in a "normal" school before. We outlined her strengths and weaknesses. She needs someone to take notes for her, we explained, because her mind is faster than her fine-motor skills can handle. She'll need extra time to sit exams.
There were nods, smiles, some questions. "Frankly, we don't know how this will work out," Peter Lugg, the principal, admitted. "But we're going to give it a try." We thanked everyone, drove home, tried to stay calm. Cambridge High School wasn't just our first choice; it was our only choice. Nine months earlier, preparing to move to Abu Dhabi to start a new job, my husband had e-mailed the American and Canadian high schools (we are dual citizens) about our daughter's educational requirements. She is a hard-working 13-year-old of normal intelligence who just happens to have a disability,, something she has always regarded as "no big deal". It turned out to be a big deal for both schools.
We were stunned at their one-line responses: "We are not prepared to accept your child." That was it. My husband preceded us to Abu Dhabi because our daughter was due to graduate from her Montreal primary school. He spent the first four months contacting every English-speaking private school he could find, setting up visits to any that was willing to talk to him. He was given all of five minutes with the vice principal of one school, and less than that with the registrar at another.
Luckily for us, a former colleague from Montreal had been a student of Mr Lugg's in India. It turned out to be the most useful connection we have made in our time here. When my daughter and I visited for a week in May last year, six meetings had been set up. Two were more fallback options than schools: Four Stars, consultants in special education who help integrate special-needs students into mainstream schools, and K-12, a home-schooling network based in Dubai. Another school cancelled our meeting the day before it was due to take place, deciding it couldn't help. Of those remaining, Cambridge stood out with its warm reception. "That's where I want to go," our daughter said after the visit. When we got the news, long-distance, that she had been accepted, there were whoops of delight from our daughter and tears of relief from my husband and me.
The teachers at Cambridge have not been trained in special-needs education but they have open minds and willing hearts. In that first year, they all found a way to work successfully with our daughter. A couple photocopied their notes for her. Several sent tests home for her to complete, trusting that she would take them without unfair help. Even the three exam periods, which are stressful times for students, parents and teachers, went smoothly. Throughout that first year, our daughter kept an 85 per cent average.
She loves her school, her teachers and the friends she has made. She couldn't wait to come back this autumn. It is "a success story", as Mr Lugg calls it. We are grateful, wiser and, yes, occasionally bitter about our initial experience. Especially when we hear the stories of other parents who have been less fortunate than ourselves. I spoke to a woman last week whose son is in boarding school in Canada because his learning needs could not be met in Abu Dhabi. I recognised the worry on another mother's face as she talked about her mildly autistic son. She hopes he will settle this year at one of the city's largest private schools.
If I could address the two schools that gave us such a quick, knee-jerk "no" now, it would probably be in the form of questions: who benefits from closing the door to special-needs students? Are you worried about your school's test scores? Is education only for the able-bodied? And just when did you forget your North American values? * Denise Roig is a freelance writer