SHARJAH // Poor integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools is hampering their education and could have "dire consequences" for their personal and professional futures, according to an expert who works with visually impaired youngsters.
Adel al Zamar, the manager of the Emirates Association of the Blind (EAB) in Sharjah, said inadequate provision for the education of children with disabilities, and a lack of policy guidelines, was limiting their ability to assimilate into society. There was a tendency among mainstream schools towards over-reliance on charitable organisations like the EAB, which is run by volunteers, regarding the education of special needs children, he said.
"They refer the students to the association, but we're not an educational institution, we don't issue certificates." The lack of such certificates makes entering further education or embarking on a professional career extremely difficult. The issue of special needs education had not been properly addressed, he said, because many people regarded it as a benefit provided by society, as opposed to a right.
"In the end, we're volunteers. We volunteer in our spare time. But why is special needs education seen as a benefit rather than a right? A benefit can some day disappear." Mr al Zamar said efforts to integrate special needs children into mainstream schools had been haphazard and poorly researched, and many visually impaired pupils were denied places because they had inadequate Braille skills. As a result, parents turned to organisations such as the EAB, most of which do not have the resources to cater for large numbers.
"The education of people with disabilities needs a special environment," Mr al Zamar said, and warned poor integration could have "dire consequences" for the prospects of special needs children. To avoid this, he said, schools should employ Braille specialists and technologies such as screen readers for school computers. A screen reader is a device or piece of software that connects to a computer and literally "reads" aloud everything the tutor writes on a digital blackboard.
He added that more specialist teachers and counsellors needed to be brought in and that special needs children should be taught in smaller groups. "Does it make sense that a blind student joins a class with 25 or 30 students? And does it make sense to ignore the other 29 students?" Mr al Zamar also recommended that schools adopt a smoother integration approach, such as introducing special needs students into mainstream education later in their school life, rather than early on.
In October, the Ministry of Education announced that over the next three years it would set up 60 schools across the country with facilities for the inclusion of children with special needs. Twenty-eight of these would be ready to accept pupils next year, it said, although it was unable to say exactly when. In addition, the ministry said Dh2 million (US$545,000) would be allocated for training teachers, technology and other provisions. According to ministry figures, more than 220 visually impaired students attended public schools last year.
Mr Ahmed Mukhtar, a blind volunteer at the EAB who has been teaching Braille for 26 years, said special needs education in mainstream schools required experienced instructors who could provide one-to-one tuition when needed. "Integration is done without being studied," he said. In the classroom, "the numbers are huge, and there's no specialisation. Sometimes a blind person needs individual teaching.
"Teaching children is not easy and there are no rules. Their capabilities differ, their environment, their family," Mr Mukhtar said. "The teacher's job does not end when he gets off work. The teacher has to make the [child's] family feel like he's a member of the family." The lack of resources earmarked for special needs education was highlighted by a recent announcement by the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care, Special Needs and Minors Affairs (ZHO), which said it was printing 800 Braille school textbooks for blind children. While the project was seen as a positive development, it served to underline the general lack of reading material for the UAE's blind community.
The ZHO's printing press, which was installed in August, is believed to be the only one that produces Braille books in the country. Mr al Zamar said the number of Braille books printed in the Arab world was woefully inadequate, with fewer than 2,000 titles published since Egypt started printing in Braille in the 1950s. Moreover, the production of school textbooks in Braille was often held up by frequent changes to school curricula, or publishers not providing books on computer discs that could be easily converted to Braille for printing.
"This upsets the students. They ask, 'Why don't we receive our books with the normal kids?'" said Ms al Swaidi. Printing such textbooks should not be seen as an accomplishment or milestone, said Mr al Zamar, because education was a right. He called for funding to build another Braille printing press and to hire more professionals to cater to the special needs community. He also said a federal law passed in 2007 and designed to better facilitate special needs education, called the UAE Disability Act, was not being enforced.