x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Society moving so fast it's easy to look past special needs

As the father of girl with an intellectual disability, Raymond Beauchemin writes that children with special needs are often overlooked, which is a disservice to them and the rest of society.

Every Tuesday in the Arts and Life section of this newspaper, we are presented with a challenge to find four differences in a pair of photographs. It's a kind of "what's wrong with this picture" puzzle to keep young and old minds alert. Perhaps, like the easiest level of Sudoku, it's just enough of a brain-tease to give one a sense of accomplishment before heading off to school or work.

It's rare that in the main news section readers find themselves asking "what's wrong with this picture", but that's what happened on February 10 with a photograph and story about the integration of special-needs students into UAE schools.

According to the story, a study, funded by the Emirates Foundation, of 6,000 UAE public school students "found widespread inaccurate perceptions about people with intellectual disabilities" and that some students do not see the point of integration. Less than half of the students surveyed could tell the difference between an intellectual disability and mental illness.

What's wrong with this picture?

The UAE Disabilities Act of 2006 states quite clearly that UAE schools are mandated to provide equal access to education. Initially this was limited to public schools, but in the past year or so, private schools have been encouraged to take in special-needs schoolchildren as well.

As they should.

Some of these schools have administrators from western countries where integration is the norm. Yet, when seeking placement for my own child, who has a physical disability requiring more time to finish assignments and a scribe for homework and note-taking, I was told by the vice principal of a Canadian high school: "There's a paradigm shift" coming from Canada to the UAE. The school would not take her.

As far as I can tell, the paradigm shift is on the part of the western administrators who leave their educational values at the gate when they get their residence visas.

The progress since 2006 has been remarkable but slow. About 4,000 students with disabilities, both intellectual and physical, were integrated in the 2009-10 school year, according to the Abu Dhabi Education Council. Given the abnormally high incidence of Down syndrome in the UAE - one in 319 births versus one in 900 in the West - integrating 4,000 students is admirable but not sufficient.

That ADEC and its counterparts in other emirates are unable to place more students in mainstream schools is partly a staffing problem. Wael Allam, the technical director of the Early Intervention Centre at the Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services, told the newspaper: "It is difficult because there are no trained teachers or professional services within the schools. However, we try to conduct regular awareness sessions at schools so that they can open up to the idea of inclusion."

This goes beyond the regular schools, however. There are as many as six dozen special-needs centres in this country, most of them being support groups or support services. Those schools that do focus solely on special-needs children are few, with staffing problems of their own .

The photograph that accompanied the Emirates Foundation story this month showed four special-need students. Two had Down syndrome; one had a physical disability and the last appeared to have a hearing impairment (he wore a hearing aid over his right ear). It is entirely likely, because Down syndrome children often have different levels of cognitive ability, that the four children in the photograph each had separate and unique special needs. The two physically disabled children might not have had any intellectual deficiency at all. Yet they were all students in the same class.

This could be a result of a paucity of trained teachers and professional services as Mr Allam indicated. I suspect, however, as strongly worded as the Disabilities Act is and as committed as the Government might be, few residents of this country can distinguish among autism, intellectual challenges, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, hearing deficit, attention deficit disorder, and speech and language needs. With so many children and so few schools, what's wrong with the picture comes into focus. In a society on overdrive, it's easy to look past children, especially those with special needs.