x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The drive to include pupils with disabilities

Education ministries in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the Northern Emirates are focused on getting students with special needs into regular classrooms where they can thrive.

DUBAI // The push to integrate pupils with disabilities into public schools across the Emirates will require revamped facilities, more training and new attitudes, experts say.

"It is very important for schools to conduct an accessibility check based on international guidelines as well as those laid down by the Ministry of Education," said Dr Eman Gaad, the dean of the faculty of education at the British University in Dubai, who has written several papers on the realities of merging students with special needs into regular classrooms.

"Schools need to re-evaluate their environment and ready themselves for welcoming learners with disabilities," Dr Gaad said.

The Ministry of Education in Dubai and the Northern Emirates and the Abu Dhabi Education Council are in the midst of major pushes to integrate pupils with disabilities.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council has invested up to Dh4 million in educational tools and aids to smooth the transition. More than 4,600 students with special education needs have been integrated into mainstream schools by Adec in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the Western Region.

In Dubai and the Northern Emirates, 400 students were integrated in mainstream public schools last year, according to the ministry. It was last year that the ministry launched its School for All programme, earmarking Dh10 million to roll out its inclusion policy to 18 government schools. The ministry plans to expand the programme to include 110 of about 420 schools over the next three years.

The 2006 federal law ensuring rights for people with special needs mandates that Emiratis should have equal chances in education, with accessibility provided through a variety of factors including modified facilities, trained educators, proper diagnoses and alternate methods of communication. Although existing school premises were not built with the disabled in mind, simple modifications could make them easily accessible, said Dr Gaad.

"Things like the width of the doors, using non-slip material for the flooring should be taken into consideration for students who are blind or in a wheelchair," she said.

Children with hearing impairments need a signal next to the fire alarm, so they can know immediately why everyone else is panicking, said Dr Gaad.

Each year, the ministry provides students with visual and hearing impairments in government schools with assistive technology including Braille machines, books, hearing aids and talking laptops. Training workshops in their use are held for students, teachers and family members.

Adam Hughes, head of disability education at Adec, said the council was working towards closing the gaps that hamper inclusion.

"The new schools are being built to international standards and will ensure students with disabilities have access to the appropriate level within premises," said Mr Hughes. "The old schools are also being refurbished to correct their design and make the environment more friendly to the children with special needs."

As integration proceeds the school systems are under pressure to recruit teachers with special training to provide proper instruction.

"We know there is a need to enhance services to children with special needs," said Mr Hughes, in January.

Although special needs staff have been assigned to every region, he said there were still major discrepancies between schools when it comes to resources. Adec, he said, was working with various partners, including colleges and universities, to secure properly trained staff.