Special needs children deserve a real commitment to provide them with the education the need.
Every child in the UAE has the right to a decent education
The UAE's academic year began this week, with thousands of children returning to school. It seems appropriate to spare a thought for those children with special needs and their parents, who, through no fault of their own, are not able to benefit properly from the opportunities available to their peers.
It's no secret that the UAE lacks adequate educational facilities for special needs children, particularly for those who are more severely disadvantaged. For years now, a friend of mine in Abu Dhabi has lived as a bachelor for most of the time because the right education for his daughter can't be found. His wife and daughter live back in Britain, where the facilities are available. That's far from ideal.
At least, though, they have that choice. Many don't have that option. I heard last week from a couple living on the east coast whose child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
He was enrolled last year in a private school and the couple paid for a classroom assistant to help the teachers. In the summer, the school confirmed his place for this academic year, although he would have to repeat the KG2 phase. The parents agreed and paid the registration fee. Early last week, they were informed that the school had changed its mind and their child would not be accepted for this year, because, apparently, the teachers didn't want to work with him. The couple were left scrambling to find last-minute alternatives.
The father told the school that their action was illegal. A day later, they offered a place, saying they should have explained their intention to exclude his son at the end of last year.
Sending the child and his mother overseas isn't really an option, although the parents have spent much time and money on special education, both in the UAE and abroad, with some good results.
What they need is a special needs school with a focus on autism. Although several private "schools" and centres for children with ASD exist, fees are often exorbitant and it is, in any case, unclear how such "schools" are regulated and to what extent their staff are properly trained.
The couple have identified an excellent one, far from where they live, but it has an enormous waiting list. If it had the financial resources, it could easily open two new classes, but it's dependent on government funding, and the money isn't available.
"Why is this?" asks the mother. "Doesn't every child in the UAE deserve the right to a decent education or are only neurotypical children granted this luxury? "
The UAE's Disability Act states that government and private schools must provide equal access to all children, that no school can refuse to admit a child with special needs and that schools must not hold back or fail students with special needs. This is in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified and signed by the UAE in 2008.
The official commitment is quite clear, although implementation is another matter. The Ministry of Education is committed to adapting government schools to facilitate special needs education, with a target of over 100 having been set for completion by this year. It will be several years before this costly programme covers all government schools.
In the private sector, I am informed that a number of schools that have sought and obtained accreditation from the Ministry of Education have emphasised that they have a policy of encouraging attendance by special needs children.
Many of these schools, though, appear to have little or no infrastructure or support system for their inclusion policy.
The Ministry of Education is rightly pushing private schools to employ appropriately trained teachers and assistants, but that's often a step the schools are unwilling to take, for economic reasons.
Instead, as appears to have been the case with the couple mentioned earlier, schools simply refuse admission to special needs children.
In the distant past, disability was something to be shut away behind closed doors.
The UAE has come a long way since those unenlightened days, and we see an increasing number of the disabled active in sports or at work. There's still much to be done, though, in the field of special needs education, in terms of expenditure, training and awareness, particularly in our schools.
Passing legislation and signing international conventions are all very well but the children, and their parents, need much more than that.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture