x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Special needs kids need more support

The horror of a boy locked up for years reminds us that we must help families with special-needs members. We must also educate the public about them.

Reputations are a valuable, if intangible, commodity, but when protecting a family's reputation becomes an excuse for the forced detention of a child, something is amiss.

The story of a psychologically challenged 17-year-old boy - kept prisoner inside his own home for 12 years to protect the family's reputation - should shame us all, not only his family. The boy is being rehabilitated in Sharjah and, according to Afaf Al Merri, director of Sharjah Social Service Department, the boy had marks caused by "restraints on his hands".

The social stigma of having a child with special needs is indeed strong in this country. It can often be difficult for otherwise healthy family members to find suitors to marry into families with disabled siblings. But none of this is an excuse for imprisoning a child.

To be fair, a lack of services and legal protection does add a heavy burden to families caring for children with special needs.

Consider the recent case of a 16-year-old autistic boy, whom authorities threatened to expel from school because he became "violent". His expatriate family had two choices: send him home or ask a specialist from outside to visit on a regular basis to provide care (which they did). In another similar case, one parent had to travel with the child to another country for education while the second stayed here to work. These are costly choices.

It's no wonder then that some people can make rash, and in some cases, illegal, decisions. That is why authorities and social organisations must address the social stigma with persistence, through awareness campaigns or marriage counselling. The causes of these disabilities must also be addressed.

The optimal way to begin to eliminate the social stigma is to integrate those with special needs into schools and the workforce. People with special needs can be highly functioning and productive members of society, but they must be given a chance. Keeping them under lock and key is not only morally reprehensible, it perpetuates a myth that those with special needs are somehow less than human.