At the Al Raya Public School in Dubai, "special needs" is no longer a stigma. As The National reported yesterday, efforts to include children with disabilities in regular classroom learning has fostered a long overdue shift in perception.
Students used to treat children with disabilities differently, says Nehad Ali al Zeer, the school's principal. "But with awareness sessions and more teacher training, that is changing."
If the nation's educational system is to become more inclusive and negative stereotypes abandoned in favour of equal educational opportunity for all, Al Raya's open-mindedness should be the example.
Education officials, to their credit, have pledged to move in this direction. Adam Hughes, a senior manager of disability education at the Abu Dhabi Education Council, said last month that efforts are underway to hire more special education teachers in the areas of speech, language, hearing and vision.
These pledges have not been fully realised, especially in the nation's far-flung regions, but the will is clearly there. An estimated 4,600 students with learning disabilities already attend public schools in the capital, officials say.
And yet, simply sticking children with disabilities into public schools will not solve the nation's education crisis. A special education curriculum that does justice to disabled pupils as well as their peers requires significant allocation of resources, training, and money. Unless this extra layer of service is provided, integration will help no one.
Even with an endless supply of teachers, children with disabilities can still suffer the stigma of being different. To move beyond hurtful labels, attitudes - of parents, teachers and other children - must evolve. Recent workshops conducted by the British University in Dubai and the UAE Down Syndrome Association have attempted to bridge this divide. By bringing 6,000 students together with special needs counterparts, educators hoped to instil a level of understanding.
This is a good start. But overhauling the nation's special education programmes, and giving those with disabilities the level of attention they deserve, will take much more than a few workshops. For too long, some of the most vulnerable members of society have not been given a chance. Now is the time to change that.