x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Workshop to change pupil's views on disabilities

Landmark two-year project, financed by the Emirates Foundation, finds that mainstream pupils are too isolated from disabled population.

A pupil at the Future Centre School, a special-needs institution in Abu Dhabi, takes part in a reading lesson.
A pupil at the Future Centre School, a special-needs institution in Abu Dhabi, takes part in a reading lesson.

DUBAI // Young people who spent just one day with special-needs school pupils had their view of intellectual disability transformed, researchers have found.

Surveyed before taking part in the programme, nearly half said they believed there was no difference between intellectual disability and mental illness.

But after a day-long workshop with disabled contemporaries their opinions had drastically changed, one of the research organisers said yesterday.

More than 6,000 school pupils spent a day with young people who have special needs in workshops designed to determine whether integration and interaction changed their perceptions. The workshops were part of a two-year programme funded by the Emirates Foundation, the results of which will be published in full tomorrow.

The workshops, which ended last month, were conducted in association with researchers from the British University in Dubai (BuiD) and the UAE Down Syndrome Association.

"The aim of the project was to correct misconceptions," said Dr Eman Gaad, dean of the faculty of education at BUiD, who wrote the report based on the programme.

"We wanted to break the fear children have, because they have been cocooned for so long, with minimum interaction with people with intellectual disabilities."

The research team visited 70 public schools and asked pupils how they felt about people with disabilities. They then talked to the children about mental disabilities and mental illness. Finally, pupils enrolled in the workshop were paired with special-needs pupils for a day.

"The questionnaire asked them to what extent they are confident around people with disabilities, are they scared, and would they accept people with disabilities in schools," said Dr Gaad.

"Another classic question was about the difference between intellectual disability and mental illness, and we were pleased to find that after the session there was a change in attitude from our previous assessment.

"The results show a dramatic difference in the students' confidence levels after the direct contact.

"Society needs this exposure to understand that if someone takes a long time to comprehend something it does not mean they cannot think; if they take a long time to say something, it does not mean they cannot talk; if they take time to produce something it does not mean they are not productive."

There has been a move towards integrating children with mild to moderate disabilities into mainstream schools.

In May 2010 the Ministry of Education published a guidebook designed to help administrators and teachers to implement such integration, and during the past two years the Abu Dhabi Education Council placed more than 3,600 children with special needs in public schools.

Jill Mengel, a programme coordinator at the Child Early Learning and Enrichment Centre in Dubai, said teaching children with special needs in a mainstream classroom produces a gamut of learning opportunities for both pupil groups.

"Because students in schools are not interacting with people with special needs that much, they tend to feel uncomfortable when around them at any point," she said. "It is necessary for schools to create an environment in which children with different abilities are together so that they can learn and be sensitive."

Though the Al Raya Public School in Dubai does not teach many children with special needs, its principal, Nehad Ali al Zeer, said she advocates inclusion.

"The school is a small community where students merge, so we will welcome children with special needs," she said.

Ms al Zeer said she has noticed that some students are uncomfortable around children with disabilities, but added that the attitude is gradually changing.

"Before, they would act strange, and even parents did not like the concept, but with awareness sessions and more teacher training, that is changing," she said.