Regional survey: compassion for people with intellectual disabilities is clear, but more action is required
Special Olympics study finds a vital need to boost inclusion by improving education and work environments
A major study commissioned by the organisers of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi - which polled more than 4,000 people in eight countries in the Middle East - found that compassion towards people with intellectual disabilities was evident, though that did not necessarily translate into action.
More than two-thirds of people in the UAE believe pupils with intellectual disabilities should study at special schools rather than be integrated into mainstream education, the survey found.
It also revealed that many people across the region feel uncomfortable interacting with those with intellectual disabilities and often distance themselves from them.
Some parents of children with intellectual disabilities also discouraged interaction with the public due to concerns about how their children would behave in the presence of strangers.
The report found there is a vital need to boost inclusion by improving educational infrastructure, fostering a receptive work environment, and teaching skills to handle difficult situations.The comprehensive survey, called Regional Perceptions and Determined Aspirations, revealed that countries in the Middle East still have much work to do to change the mindsets of the public towards people with disabilities.
A total of 4,250 people were interviewed for the survey in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Oman.
While the study found respondents felt children with intellectual disabilities should have dedicated schools, attitudes shifted when it came to the workplace.
Of the 678 people interviewed in the UAE, 66 per cent felt people with intellectual disabilities should work alongside people without disabilities in places of work.
People with special needs expressed the desire to have more friends, some were keen to get married and others wanted to win competitions and medals.
Undertaken by information and research firm Nielsen in the first two quarters of last year, the study incorporates the voices of disabled people, their parents and caregivers to provide an insight into their lives in the MENA region. It observed that statistics about the prevalence of intellectual disability in the region are difficult to come by.
Another observation was that despite efforts to promote inclusion in schools, a lot of work remained to be done.
Parents reported in the survey that they enroled children into mainstream schools but it was usually a short-term option. This was because children after a certain age could not keep up with educational demands or the “school forces parents to withdraw their children because they don’t have the capabilities to retain students with intellectual disabilities".
Specialist centres were found to be expensive and home schooling was usually seen as the only option.
The survey suggests developing different paths for varying degrees of intellectual disabilities to cater to high functioning pupils who could pursue a high school or vocational course.
It also called for caregivers to have a greater understanding of what people with special needs can achieve as many said that it was unrealistic for people with special needs to dream of a career and that they would always be limited to low-skilled jobs.
Case studies of people who have succeeded in their professional life could be made available to caregivers so they were not influenced by the community’s perception of disabled people being “incapable.”
The widespread belief was that companies hired people with special needs to fill up quotas and create a good impression, rather than because of the person’s skills.
But the crucial need for more employment opportunities was apparent with only 32 per cent in the UAE and as low as 6 per cent in Morocco, 11 per cent in Oman and 18 per cent in Kuwait conveying an awareness of companies hiring people with intellectual disabilities.
Awareness of disability initiatives led by governments was higher than anywhere else in the region, with 73 per cent of people in the UAE believing the government is highly involved in disability issues.
The survey highlighted that inclusion in sports was often limited to games played within the community of people with disabilities with few opportunities for people to play together.
This stemmed from the deep rooted belief that people with disabilities were capable of playing in a team with others like themselves rather than a group with varying abilities.
In order to address this perception, organisers of the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi have called on the public to get on the same team as people with intellectual disabilities during the games in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Visitors can sign up to play team sports in football, volleyball and basketball alongside the athletes as part of a larger aim to break down barriers.
About one billion people in the world or 15 per cent of the world’s population have some form of disability, with as many as 200 million people with intellectual disabilities.
People with special needs still feel 'excluded'
Wemmy de Maaker, director of Mawaheb, an art studio for adults with special needs, said it was vital that people with intellectual disabilities are made to feel at home in all sections of society, from the classroom to the office.
“If we are not integrating them socially then we are still excluding them. I have met some people with intellectual disabilities who have been to mainstream schools but ended up lonely and excluded from social events and friendships,” said Ms de Maaker.
“It starts with teaching the teachers about the needs of people with intellectual disabilities.
“I’m very pleased that the UAE has started with including people with intellectual disabilities into mainstream jobs. Many corporate businesses are now open to internships and hiring people with intellectual disabilities. My only concern is they have a job but are not part of the culture so are not included during lunch time gatherings or in after office social events. Intellectual inclusion is important but emotional development is even more important.”
Isphana Al Khatib, director of Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs, said teachers need to have a greater understanding of the needs of pupils with intellectual disabilities.
“Mainstream teachers don’t have enough knowledge, understanding or resources to do justice to children with special needs,” said Ms Khatib.
“This is not a statement against inclusion, but unless the right streams of diversified education are provided you are defeating the purpose of inclusion. Disability is so varied not only in the number of disabilities but also in the level and intensity.”
Updated: March 14, 2019 12:40 PM