DUBAI // The nation's leading Down syndrome association has launched a programme to help children and teenagers with the condition to integrate into mainstream schools and eventually find jobs. The programme, which has been running since October 1, was officially launched yesterday at the UAE Down Syndrome Association's headquarters near Jumeirah Open Beach.
The staff and volunteers will focus on helping the children and teenagers to improve their communication skills and physical development. Mahmoud al Hamadi - whose son Omar, 5, an energetic boy with blue-rimmed spectacles, is one of 33 children enrolled in the programme - said it had changed his family's life. "I have seen him improve and develop," said Mr al Hammadi, who was waiting downstairs as Omar and another boy played with building blocks in an upstairs room.
Mr al Hammadi, who works offshore for two weeks of every month for an oil company, said the support the association had provided his wife and son was immeasurable. "They provide sports activities for him and if we need any help, or even a doctor, they can check on him." Dr Eman Gaad, co-founder of the Down syndrome association - a private organisation launched in 2005 with the support of the Government - said while similar programmes are available at some private clinics, the hourly cost can be at least five times the Dh50 fee the association will be charging.
"This programme is meant to enhance integration socially and academically," Dr Gaad said. "Everything is new." The problem, Dr Gaad said, is that the characteristics of someone with Down syndrome are often the first thing people see. This social stigma is something the association is trying to combat with awareness campaigns across 70 government schools, 10 in each emirate. "We also have this programme for empowering those with Down syndrome, through occupational therapy and speech therapy," she said.
"We have discovered that often these children do not get included in society because of speech problems and so we want to, as early as possible, empower them with access to these therapies." The prevalence of Down syndrome in the Emirates is almost twice the international average, with one in 453 live births diagnosed with the condition compared to one in 800 worldwide. The Ministry of Health is trying to prevent the spread of the chromosomal disorder through pre-marriage tests carried out in conjunction with the Marriage Fund, as well as awareness campaigns run by the Down syndrome association.
Dr Hanif Hassan Ali, the Minister of Health, who attended the launch event, said early intervention was key for those already living with it. "The ministry is very keen on activating its co-operation with relevant authorities to ensure the rights of these categories in health, education and normal life," he said. The programme involves one-hour sessions twice a week with trained occupational and physical therapists.
Dr Manal Jarour, the project manager for the rehabilitation programme, said families travel from as far as Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Ajman to take part. "Some are in mainstream schools and some are in centres and others are just months old," she said. "The youngest is seven months and the oldest 24 years. They come twice a week for as long as they want. We are open six days a week, eight hours a day."
Each child undergoes regular assessments to monitor progress. Two full-time staff work with volunteers. As well as speech, occupational and physical therapy, the programme offers free medical consultations and psychological care. firstname.lastname@example.org