x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

All school buses must be able to transport special needs students, says UAE ministry

Social affairs ministry tells bus companies to draw up detailed plans for the transportation of pupils with physical and intellectual disabilities.

School bus operators have said they are ready to make transport systems more accessible but physical additions to buses would take time. Pawan Singh / The National
School bus operators have said they are ready to make transport systems more accessible but physical additions to buses would take time. Pawan Singh / The National

DUBAI // School buses must be ready to transport all pupils if the emirate wants to achieve true integration of special needs children, the Ministry of Social Affairs says.

Setting aside special transport to meet the needs of those with disabilities is discriminatory, according to a 20-page report presented to the Roads and Transport Authority last month by the ministry.

"We have to make all schools ready to take in students with special needs and, to start with, transport companies and schools must be prepared to transport these children," said Nazem Fauzi Mansour, an adviser at the ministry.

"The idea is not to have separate buses for students with disabilities but equip regular school buses with features and devices," he said. "We need to train bus drivers and attendants so children with intellectual impairments and children with visual or hearing disabilities  are in the same bus as other students.

"This is only a recommendation and we will rely on goodwill and awareness while we wait for a formal regulation."

He said the ministry planned to present its report in schools and to bus companies in an attempt to convince them to draw up detailed plans for the transport of pupils with physical and intellectual disabilities.

Parents and educators have welcomed the move but say sustained groundwork is needed to change attitudes.

Very few schools practice inclusion policies and special needs students are often rejected in the race to stay ahead in league tables, KHDA research shows.

The Ministry of Social Affairs was spurred to action by their research and by letters from the parents of children with special needs who said they were unable to get their children to and from school.

A questionnaire about specific needs was drawn up, and the transport report is a compilation of those findings.

"It's very important that a student with visual impairment or a hearing disability sit in front so the student can reach the seat on their own," Mr Mansour said. "It must be the same seat on every journey and if there is a change in driver or attendant, the parents must be informed because any change can upset students with behavioural problems."

Additional safeguards include training for drivers and attendants, more helpers on the bus, specific seats allotted and a detailed plan in case emergency evacuation of the bus is required.

Cameras to monitor the children, devices such as power lifts, ramps, and special belts for wheelchairs in the buses are also part of the ministry's advisory.

School bus operators said they were ready to make transport systems more accessible but physical additions to buses would take time.

"It is a good proposal and we already have some special needs students in our buses," said ML Augustine, the managing director of Special Transport Services that transports 58,000 students.

"But we will have to assess the requirement for special buses with lifts and reduced number of seats. This could certainly take time and costs will go up."

The Ministry of Social Affairs, however, said the cost of upgrades should be borne by transport companies and not parents.

Hussain Norsherwan, a senior manager at Arab Falcon Bus Rental, which transports more than 1,000 students in more than 100 buses, said the company currently does not transport any students with disabilities.

"We will need a special set-up, more training for drivers, additional bus helpers but this is all possible. But providing wheelchair space will be costly and companies will need more than a year to make provisions for that."

Sonia, the mother of a 12-year-old boy with Down syndrome who studies at Winchester School, has a shadow teacher travel with her son on the school bus.

"I have made sure he travels in the regular bus," she said. "He was so happy on Monday when he received a school certificate for Being a Real Pleasure to Teach and showed it to everyone in the bus. He gets invitations for birthdays, movies and more interaction makes him more social."

Whether a school has 20 students with special needs or five, Mr Mansour said there should be no separate bus.

"That is like discrimination," he said. "They should travel together. Every human being has the right to any place - that is the real meaning of accessibility."

rtalwar@thenational.ae