x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Funding is universities' biggest challenge

Universities need funding to make the campuses and courses more accessible, experts say.

DUBAI // A lack of funding is preventing the country's three federal universities from implementing the UAE's 2006 disability law and accommodating students with special needs who want to continue to study, educators say.

Fatma Ahmad al Qassami, an Emirati who has used a wheelchair since contracting polio as a child, was hired to set up the office of accessibility for 18 special needs students at Zayed University Dubai in January last year.

Ms al Qassami, who earned her high school education in the UK, said it was only recently that serious consideration had been given to those with special needs and disabilities in the UAE. However, that attention was not yet reflected at the university level. Without funding, parents were left to shoulder the costs associated with sending their students to university, she said.

"The law says that schools or universities have to accept children with disabilities but there's no budget," she said. "The whole burden of extra teachers and care will cost the parents around Dh4,000 a month extra so they just won't pay, instead keeping the children at home. The budget problems mean we can't go as fast as we want with this."

Even now, Zayed University is still battling small changes to make the campus more accessible, from changing the height of sinks to widening doorways. The school had only one person on each campus who could assess people for learning disabilities, said John Cryan, interim dean at the college of education at Zayed University in Dubai.

"We also have only one faculty member who is trained to teach people with special needs, but without the budget, we can't provide the staff, the materials and resources and the training," he said.

At UAE University in Al Ain, it has been 18 months since Dr Tamer Said Oraby established the Disability Support Centre to fulfil the institution's legal obligations. There are 35 students with special needs, 80 per cent have impaired vision.

"It's slowly making progress," he said. "Six years ago it wasn't like it is now. In terms of mainstream education, accepting students with disabilities or special needs was hard but now in general education, every school is obliged to accept and accommodate them."

The biggest challenge, he said, was funding and the most common problem was impaired vision. The equipment needed to help sight-impaired students costs about Dh17,500 per student per year.

The new female campus was built to be more accessible. It also has a Dh500,000 laboratory equipped with an array of technology including screen reader software and electronic magnifiers. Yet it was far from enough to accommodate students, who often had not been properly dealt with at the lower education levels, said Dr Oraby.

"We still need staff to diagnose the many students, who have either not been diagnosed or have been misdiagnosed with learning difficulties," he said. "We need training for the university staff to identify these problems and most of all, we need to raise public awareness ... so these things can be implemented."

Assistive technology learning resource centres have opened at the Abu Dhabi Women's College's two campuses, Al Ain Men's College, Abu Dhabi Men's College and Dubai Men's College, with the plan to open more on other campuses. The labs help those with hearing and sight impairment and conditions such as dyslexia.

While all the colleges had taken accessibility measures, such as ramps, the provost Dr Mark Drummond believed additional staff members were also required.

"We need an educational psychologist to diagnose problems in students," he said. "There is not a large reservoir of experts in this area though, so we are pioneering this."

mswan@thenational.ae