It’s time to rethink special needs education

The UAE's approach to special needs education needs to provide for the entire spectrum of need, writes Ayesha Al Mazroui

Students at the New England Center for Children participate in group singing at the center for autistic children in Mohamed bin Zayed City. (Silvia Razgova / The National)
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A mother of a six-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome expressed her frustration recently over the difficulty she went through to enrol him in school. She said that all the schools she had been to had refused to admit her son and offered no satisfactory explanation. Officials told her that they “cannot accommodate” her child or it’s “against their policy” to take him.

She sought help from several special needs centres, including Dubai Autism Centre and Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs, where she was told her child has mild autism and that they couldn’t take him because they accommodate only moderate to severe cases. She had her son on Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre’s waiting list but never heard from them. She finally sought help from a private therapist.

This situation is apparently common among parents with special needs children. Experts say that the system is not solid enough to provide a full spectrum of services for children with special needs even now, nine years after a federal law on the rights of people with special needs was introduced.

The law stipulates that “special needs in themselves are not an obstruction to joining or getting admission into an educational institution, no matter whether it is a public or private institution” as they are entitled to have “access to equal opportunities of education”.

The Ministry of Education says it has been training teaching staff in specialised courses to facilitate the inclusion of special needs students into regular schools and classrooms. It has also established an assessment team in each education zone to evaluate and follow up on the needs of special education students.

Organisations such as Al Jalila Foundation have organised workshops and training programmes for parents, teachers, principals and social workers from private and public schools in Dubai to educate them about inclusive education practices and equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to understand individual learning needs.

But while some schools have placed a particular focus on the needs of students with special needs, many schools are not doing enough for this group of students. Most schools don’t have enough resources, facilities or proper training to integrate pupils with special needs into their classrooms.

When it comes to private schools, experts say that there is no policy or mechanism to enforce the law. Most schools don’t have committees to assess policy and ensure non-discrimination, physical and economic accessibility, acceptability and adaptability in education.

Furthermore, the education system – both public and private – hasn’t yet enforced a requirement to develop Individualised Educational Plans (IEPs) to meet the needs of each student based on their unique intellectual or physical abilities.

But even before the cases reach schools, the country faces many challenges to support and facilitate the integration of people of special needs into mainstream society.

One challenge is that many of the learning disabilities cases are not diagnosed because parents fail to address the problem or refuse to take their children to a specialist to assess their cases.

The assessment process can also be challenging due to cultural and linguistic barriers, especially with the lack of Arabic-speaking specialists and the outdated assessment methods.

The system also lacks regulation and has no professional licensing system to reach and maintain good standards, and many specialised centres have no accreditation.

Experts also say that there is a big gap between the health and education sectors when it comes to coordination to meet the needs of the students, which in turn affects them when it comes to their health condition or their academic performance.

When it comes to profound cases, the system has not yet explored ways to provide feasible solutions for students with complex health needs, such as online courses, since many of them have to travel abroad for long periods to receive treatment.

All these issues need to be addressed if the country aims to achieve 100 per cent inclusion, a goal set by the leadership. Long is the way towards an environment where students with special needs feel that the world belongs to them, and that opportunities for learning, making friends, working and becoming full members of society are within their reach.