Disabled girl’s mother backs school inclusion

Rebecca Corley was speaking after a poll of teachers found most thought pupils would not benefit from the presence of special-needs classmates.

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DUBAI // Rebecca Corley, mother of a teenage girl with Down syndrome, has seen first-hand how her child’s inclusion into a mainstream classroom enriched her education, and that of her fellow pupils.

Mrs Corley was speaking after a poll of teachers found most thought pupils would not benefit from the presence of special-needs classmates.

“Children who are in a mainstream school are going to benefit by having children with a learning disability around them,” said Mrs Corley, whose daughter Georgina attended regular school in Dubai for most of her academic career.

“It teaches them a certain patience and understanding and kindness some adults never learn.

“It’s giving them another free part of education for life by interacting with children, whether they’re wheelchair-bound, whether they’re hearing-impaired, whatever their disability may be.

“I can 100 per cent guarantee you they will say it has been an education and a delight for my child to be working alongside a child with Down syndrome.”

Georgina also blossomed thanks to her inclusion.

“She had the right form of guidance at home and it got followed through at school,” Mrs Corley said.

“She learnt from all her peers around her. So she learnt what was acceptable and unacceptable. She had a proper structure to her day. She learnt at her pace and that was at a very high pace.

“She had people and parents and parents’ children around who wanted her there and she just blossomed. And that’s what we’re seeing again and again.”

The poll of teachers from three Dubai private schools was conducted by Anomitra Banerjee, a student at the Indian University Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani. The findings were presented at the UAE undergraduate student research competition.

A questionnaire was followed by individual interviews.

Most of the teachers agreed society regarded putting special-needs pupils in mainstream classes as desirable but only seven said inclusion benefits mainstream pupils.

Thirty of the teachers said special-needs pupils would not benefit at all, and 32 said special-needs pupils should only be around other disabled children.

Special-needs advocates said they were not surprised by the poll’s findings, as the culture of inclusive education is new to the UAE.

“You hear that a lot,” said Hiba Bahsoun, director of special education and inclusion for Stepping Stones Centre, which helps to integrate special-needs children in Dubai and the US.

“Sometimes I feel it’s always used as an excuse on behalf of the teachers – ‘It’s going to be too much to deal with’ – but that’s not always the case.”

In 2006, the UAE passed a law promoting “the philosophy of inclusive education by ensuring all students with disabilities in public and private educational institutions in the UAE have access to equal educational opportunities”.

But special-needs advocates say the law does not go far enough in ensuring it is enforced and that a culture of inclusion is the norm.

“The UAE signed and ratified the UN Convention on the right of persons with disabilities that supports inclusion of such learners in the mainstream, but we still have a lot of work to have full inclusion,” said Dr Eman Gaad, dean of education at the British University in Dubai.

“We can help change attitudes by advocating for inclusion as a ‘right’ that is supported by the country, not an option. We also need more inclusion-related subjects to be taught at teachers’ courses.”

rpennington@thenational.ae