UAE lacking support networks to integrate special needs pupils

While the country has laws in place to integrate special needs pupils into mainstream schools, it still lacks the services and support networks to make that happen.

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DUBAI // While the country has laws in place to integrate special needs pupils into mainstream schools, it still lacks the services and support networks to make that happen.

“Much of the legislative framework is being put in place but what perhaps needs more work is delivery,” Andrew Westerman, director of education and training at Ebdaah, a special needs training and advocacy firm, told a media round table on Wednesday.

In the nine years since the country adopted Federal Law 29, granting pupils with special needs equal access to education, many private schools are still unable to integrate them because of a lack of resources, facilities or proper training, said Dr Nadera Alborno, education researcher at the American University in Dubai.

Although the public schools have made provisions, the private schools are failing to adequately provide the services, Dr Alborno said.

“The problem with the private sector is there still is no policy that actually enforces the schools to do that,” said Dr Alborno.

The Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which oversees private schools, encourages them to improve their special education needs provisions through annual inspections, but it cannot order a school to accept a pupil.

“The problem really is that teachers need training more than anything else and the other thing is we need to have assistant teachers,” said Dr Alborno, adding that there was also a shortage of speech and occupational therapists to help integrate the pupils.

Chris Huntley, head of special needs at Ebdaah and former head teacher at Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre, said many private schools and families also faced not being able to afford the high cost of providing services for children with special needs.

While the governments of some countries fund inclusive education as a public service, in the UAE the programme is extended only to Emiratis in public schools.

“The problem is the financing,” Mrs Huntley said. “A special needs child takes a lot more money. It is a big problem, there are no easy answers.

“If the government would step in, it would be amazing. If the government would support special needs within the schools – support it financially as well as emotionally – then it could all happen.”

The KHDA said: “Our expectation is that all private schools in Dubai will provide appropriate provision for students with special educational needs.

“It is considered a key criterion within the inspection framework, reflecting Dubai’s new law for people with disabilities issued in 2014, and is seen as a positive feature at many good and outstanding schools,” the authority said.

Ebdaah is hosting a one-day forum on Saturday at the Media Rotana hotel in Dubai for parents and educators to address the challenges of inclusion at private schools.

Ebdaah is also offering a series of 18-hour training courses for teaching professionals.

rpennington@thenational.ae

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