x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Stop stigmatising special-needs kids

Children with special needs in the UAE are, to a large degree, victims of social, institutional and legal stigma. It's time for that to change.

Children with special needs in the UAE are, to a large degree, victims of social, institutional and legal stigma. It is in this context that we must consider the recent case of parents who abandoned their six-month-old baby in a hospital after learning he suffered from neurological disorders.

As The National reported yesterday, Dubai police were considering a legal case against the parents, who subsequently recovered their newborn. This is, however, an issue of much broader consequence than a single case of parental misjudgment.

Children with special needs can unfortunately place a heavy burden on their families due to a lack of available services. In some parts of the country specialised health care and educational facilities are in short supply. The case of one Sharjah family unable to pay for treatment of two disabled children, which we reported on yesterday, is one small example. There is no telling how many other children fall through the cracks when families can't pay for helpers or specialised schools.

Resource deficiencies, of course, can be overcome. Social stigma attached to raising special-needs children, on the other hand, are harder to address. Too often parents choose to hide children away rather than incorporate them into family life in ways that are meaningful and productive for all. Awareness is key to removing this type of stigma, for parents and the society in general.

There is also a need to improve legal protections for special-needs children and families. In one recent court case, a school arbitrarily expelled a 16-year-old autistic boy. The fact that a judge heard the case should be considered progress. The case was delayed for a year as the courts gathered evidence and expert testimony, demonstrating the complexity of such cases.

An expanded legal framework to deal with such cases is urgently needed, not only to discourage parents from abandoning their responsibilities but also to prevent mistreatment by schools, society or institutions.

Such a system will take time to build up. In the interim, the best way to incorporate people with special needs into society is simply to respect - and encourage - those with gifts different than our own.