ABU DHABI // When Hashim al Masaood, a towering 17-year-old, was handed his high school diploma by Sheikh Nahyan Mubarak Al Nahyan, the crowd cheered. It was a big day for Hashim, his family, and the American International School-Abu Dhabi (AISA). In September Hashim will start at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), making him the first person with autism to enrol at one of the UAE's federal universities.
Hashim's road to university was not easy, according to his mother, Nancy. Had she taken advice from the Ministry of Education, Hashim never would have gone to school to begin with: they suggested he enrol in a centre for disabled students, where most students do not receive academic diplomas and passage to university is out of the question. "When I first went to the Future Centre," she said of one institution for disabled students, "they had 15-year-old girls wearing baby doll clothes with bows in their hair stringing a bead. What is stringing a bead going to do for them?
"They aren't going to be working in a factory in this country. So teach them something that they can do at their houses." Confident that her son could succeed at school, Mrs al Masaood started hunting for a place that would take him. "I don't believe that integration is for everyone," she said. "It has to be someone who is ready to go in." Finding a school was not easy - most schools do not take children with disabilities.
"When he first went to school we had protests from the parents. They didn't want their children in the class with him. They were paying good money and they didn't want Hashim in the classroom." Over the years, there have been other issues. "In high school they made me sign a paper that said they could kick him out at any time. They said they wouldn't do anything extra. They will do nothing but let him sit in the class."
As a nurse trained to work with people with disabilities, Mrs al Masaood was better equipped than most to handle her son's needs - but even she found it challenging. "Parents here tend to hide their children and they don't let them go out," Mrs al Masaood said. She added that too many disabled children are raised by housemaids because expectations are low. "They are getting better,"she said. "But the mentality has to change. There are a lot of locals who are trying but they have to get rid of the pity factor."
Another problem, Mrs al Masaood said, is that the ministry does not require schools to create an adapted curriculum for disabled children. Mrs al Masaood had meetings with the education council, Adec, which also set up meetings with the Zayed Higher Organisation to discuss post-school options. A spokesperson pointed to a letter from Adec to the school about "exam access", in which they requested a 30-minute extension for exams longer than two hours, a five- minute break each hour, and an independent scribe in the presence of an invigilator.
Mrs al Masaood, however, remains unhappy with the assistance they gave. "They did nothing for me," she said. "They promised me the moon. We're going to do this and that. We're going to set up a meeting, we're going to go to the school. Nothing happened." She says that in the end someone from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research helped her navigate through university entrance examinations.
"They went to the HCT with me - which is not their job,"she said. Hashim's schooling has also been costly. Because the family did not want to send him to a centre, they had to pay out of pocket. On top of tuition fees, they had to hire a shadow teacher. Moaz Vilytui, Hashim's "shadow" teacher, has been working with him since he was 11. Next year she will go with him to the HCT - a move that they are both excited, and nervous, about. Ms Vilytui, a petite 31-year-old Filipina, is nervous about going to an all-men's college. Hashim is afraid about making a new start.
"What if I ruin the Higher College of Technology's career?" he said on a recent morning. "You're not going to ruin anything," Mrs al Masaood said. "We have plans to help," added Ms Vilytui. "With these guys it takes teamwork," Mrs al Masaood said, adding that she attributes some of Hasham's success at AISA to support from students. "In the elementary days, I made it fun to be Hashim's friend," she said. "I don't believe in birthday parties and I made birthday parties for Hashim."
"The boys came along with him and the boys helped." @Email:email@example.com