Coronavirus: Special needs centres risk closure as parents struggle to teach children

Parents are concerned their children's development will stall as centres face closure due to lack of finances

Ali Ahmed Al Bulooshi, 3, with his mother, Mona Ali Mubarak Al Kindi, at a therapy session in Dimensions Center in Fujairah. The center which treats children of special needs, has been saved from closure after the community rallied around to help. 

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: Ruba Haza
Section: NA
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Parents of children with disabilities say they worry the extension of distance learning will disrupt their sons and daughters’ development.

The UAE closed all schools, universities and educational institutions, including special needs centres, until the end of the academic school year to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Parents of special needs pupils say they are struggling to keep their children engaged in online learning and worry the lack of socialisation and rehabilitation will negatively affect them in the long run.

“It is not an easy time on everyone with the virus outbreak and especially on our children who need extra care and attention,” said Emirati Mona Al Kindi, who is mother to Ali Al Bloushi, 5, who has Down syndrome.

“My son used to go to Fujairah Rehabilitation Centre for People of Determination in the morning and attend one on one sessions at the Dimensions Centre for children with special needs in the afternoon.”

She said, now that Ali is home all the time, she has been working with his teachers and using the videos and educational resources provided by the centres to ensure he is progressing.

“He has developed many skills during the past year, and I don’t want him to fall behind, so I’m trying so hard, but it is difficult to get his attention,” said Ms Al Kindi, 48.

Children decorate T-shirts during a class at Fujairah Rehabilitation Centre in 2016. Satish Kumar / The National
Children decorate T-shirts during a class at Fujairah Rehabilitation Centre in 2016. Satish Kumar / The National

Another issue facing some parents is the financial hit they have taken as a result of Covid-19. The effect of the virus on the world’s economy has left millions unemployed. In the UAE, some people have been let go, asked to take unpaid leave or had their pay cut.

Parents of special needs children, who need a support teacher, and have had their income reduced say they are concerned their children will suffer.

Vanessa, a working single mother in Dubai, has been forced to stop therapy for her son, 7, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

She said she typically spends nearly Dh15,000 every month on speech therapy, play therapy, fees for psychologists, and in salary for her child’s learning support assistant.

Her son attends Emirates International School and she is still to pay Dh12,500 for his third term.

“I have to pay full fees and I am expecting a salary cut," said Vanessa.

"I had to fire my learning support assistant and stop all the therapy for my son.”

He has developed many skills during the past year, and I don't want him to fall behind

She said the school was not offering parents a discount but a 20 per cent reduction would help pay for at least one of the types of therapies her son was undergoing.

"The play therapy was helping with his emotional development. Now, he just interacts with me and his nanny, and his speech isn’t developing as fast."

She said online learning programme have not been inclusive towards children with special needs.

"I have to be with him from beginning to the end for online learning. I have to listen to the teacher and then explain to him.”

Special needs centres are also struggling to stay afloat, as many parents are now unable to pay full fees.

Ranjini Ramnath, deputy director of Al Noor Training Centre for Persons with Disabilities in Dubai, said many parents cannot pay fees this term because they have been let go or had their salaries cut.

The centre previously subsidised its fees through fund-raising events, which have now been suspended due to coronavirus.

“We were unable to collect fees from some parents in March because of their economic position and we were not able to take new admissions either,” she said.

The centre also provides a variety of rehabilitation therapies including physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, psychological services, sports and music, to 200 pupils aged between three and 24.

Their pupils have physical and cognitive disabilities including Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and Autism.

Ms Ramnath said those who require physical support or extra individual attention would likely suffer because the centre’s trained interventionists are unable to fully deliver these services online.

“Since our team, who are specifically trained to work with people with disabilities, are not physically present, they are limited in what they can do,” she said.

“Inevitably, there are some parents who have expressed challenges with the distance rehabilitation programme.”

She said parents working home are struggling to juggle their jobs and teaching their children.

“They may also have other children to attend too,” she said.

Some are facing difficulties getting their children to participate in the online sessions.

“It is difficult as many of them have challenging behaviour, disruption in the routine has affected many specifically students with autism.”

Parents have also had technical difficulties with weak internet connections or just generally having limited technical knowledge.

Shereen Al Nowais, chief executive of Taaleem Training and Skills Development Centre, which helps educate children with special needs, said their facility was also struggling to remain open.

“Our payment system is per class, and since there is no payment collected, and we have been struggling financially, … we are afraid and worried that the Taaleem centre might close,” the Emirati said.

“We have to pay salaries as well as our rent. This is a very crucial time for us and we need as much support as we can from the government and education authorities because we believe that this is a public service.”

The centre is offering their pupils online classes but have had to appeal to parents to support them by helping to teach their children.

"It is our objective to teach children with learning difficulties and special needs. These children can study better with the guidance of their parents.”