Dubai's journey towards full inclusionJanuary 14, 2018, 4:50 pm GMT
Children with special needs and their parents face a multitude of challenges when it comes to education and career opportunities. To start with, parents may not be aware that their children have special educational needs until their school ages. While applying for school admissions, they face rejections, which makes parents confused about how to proceed further. The more lucky ones who are admitted to schools find it difficult to make friends and battle loneliness and other issues throughout their school lives. Whey they manage to complete high school, they face yet another set of new challenges, not being able to find opportunities for further study, training or employment.
These barriers are due to the lack of an inclusive culture, which does not permit such children to be admitted in schools of their choice and make progress toward having a career like their peers. Their state of helplessness calls for a change of attitudes.
The Dubai Government has responded to these concerns by announcing the inclusive education policy framework, which aims to promote greater inclusion for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The term 'special educational needs' is used to describe the educational needs of any one with a disability, disorder, difficulty, impairment, exceptionality or any other factor that may affect a student's access to learning and educational performance.
The focus on inclusive education is part of Dubai's vision to become a fully cohesive and inclusive city by 2020. This is part of a wider strategic plan which, in addition to education, incorporates health and rehabilitation, employment, universal accessibility and social protection.
The government of the UAE strongly supports education and learning services for people of determination. Under the National Policy for Empowering People with Special Needs, people with special needs or disabilities will be referred to as 'people of determination' to recognise their achievements in different fields. The Federal Law No. 29 issued in 2006 is the first law in the UAE to protect the rights of people with special needs. The law provides for equal care, rights and opportunities for people with special needs in education, health care, training and rehabilitation and aims to ensure their rights and provide all services within the limits of their abilities and capabilities. Furthermore, Federal Law No. 2 of 2001 states that people of determination are entitled to receive monthly assistance subject to terms as per the existing laws.
Dubai's inclusive education policy framework applies to all education sectors across Dubai including early childhood services, special needs centres, primary, secondary and higher education providers. It also empowers education providers, regulatory authorities and governing bodies in Dubai to closely monitor progress and compliance.
Based on international best-practice and research, the policy framework provides definitions of key terms and outlines 10 standards to ensure inclusion in education.
Fatma Belrehif, executive director of Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau, Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), says the reason for having a comprehensive list of standards is to ensure a barrier-free path for all children to pursue education and help parents determine what to do at every step of their journey.
"With regard to what extent we could become inclusive, this is a journey that will require different approaches and tools. It is not enough that institutions admit special needs students or train teachers. We're aiming for a system that identifies the specific needs of every child and use that to determine the best community or environment for the child. This is only possible through collaboration between different educational systems and institutions, exchanging expertise and sharing best practices," says Belrehif.
"The first phase of the policy framework aims to raise awareness about the 10 standards and build cultural and social expectations that people of determination cannot be denied access to education, and that schools should make reasonable accommodation to admit students with special needs. We will publish individual guides for schools, early learning centres, and higher education institutions and specify the best practices, tools and incentives for them to implement inclusion policies," she adds.
Abdulla Al Karam, chairman of the board of directors and director general of KHDA, indicates that although the journey ahead will present many challenges, the stories of success, determination and achievements will provide the inspiration to move forward together.
"In many ways, students of determination are our teachers. They remind us that happiness is possible in the face of adversity and diversity. They show us that with perseverance we can achieve almost anything. The momentum for change must be facilitated, modelled and enabled through leadership and governance. Government authorities have a key role to play in mobilising opportunities to enable, enhance, and enforce the necessary measures to ensure Dubai achieves a fully inclusive system of education. The Dubai policy framework provides the structure and standards required to pave the way forward. However, it is the teachers, parents, school leaders, and medical professionals who hold the power to initiate and drive change," says Al Karam.
From rejection to inclusion - How a Dubai girl with Down Syndrome found acceptance
"Sorry, we never had one of those," "We don't have facilities for people like that," "She'll be able to work in a supermarket one day." These were some of the responses Stephanie Hamilton received while applying for school admissions in Dubai for her daughter Ruby who suffers from Down Syndrome.
Ruby, who started her education in New Zealand and then moved to the UAE, faced over 40 such rejections from schools in the UAE before getting admitted to the Winchester School Dubai in 2014.
"All those rejections took a toll on me. I felt exhausted, defeated, angry, hurt, and of course, unseen and unheard. Finally, there was light at the end of the tunnel. I will always be grateful to Lee Davies, the then principal of Winchester and the current principal of Horizon International School, who believed in inclusion when others did not," says Hamilton.
Two years later, Ruby moved to a new school to join her siblings, and she has never look back since then. Hamilton praised the attitudes of the registrar, teachers and friends in her school, and their contributions towards inclusion.
"When Ruby started school, I made a picture book introducing Ruby and her condition to her classmates and teachers. It read: 'Hi my name is Ruby and I've Down Syndrome, but I'm not Down Syndrome.' Their response was overwhelming. Her classmates understood the value of individuality and uniqueness of her gifts because children don't discriminate others, even if they are differently abled children. The vulnerability and courage that Ruby shows on a daily basis gives others permission to do the same," says Hamilton.
Hamilton remembers a heartfelt moment when inclusion stole the show. "During her sports day, Ruby was hesitant to start her race. The entire primary school chanted her name to encourage Ruby to do her best. As a result, Ruby completed her race and allowed other children to accept that not everybody is going to come first in a race but that they could still be a winner by just trying and having fun in the process," she says.
Hamilton warns that when a school chooses the 'too-hard basket', everyone loses. "We are people first: this truth should be the foundation of every school's admission policy. We can then focus on the strengths of the child, and as a result, we all win. Inevitably there will be challenges, but the gifts outweigh the challenges and enable us to be better humans. I feel happy when people see Ruby as a person first, and then it's all right to acknowledge that she has Down Syndrome. Ruby is a truly valued member of her school. It is through integration and not segregation that Ruby's inclusion story will continue to be a positive one," says Hamilton.
"I believe that each one of us has a gift and a challenge. There's no magic pill or formula that exempts anyone of us from this truth. Everyone wants to be seen and heard. Our scars and our flaws are the true sources of our connections. To be vulnerable and exposed as Ruby gives us a greater understanding of what it means to accept and to be accepted," she adds.
There are other hurdles to cross for parents with special needs children in the UAE. The general rules and provisions for special education in the UAE states that students with special needs should have the opportunity to participate in educational programs in the least restrictive environments that is commensurate with their individual strengths and needs.
But, what is the least restrictive environment? Everyone is familiar with the high costs of educating a child with special needs. Currently, there are many students unable to access education due to high costs. Speaking about one's financial position can be a vulnerable and may be taboo, according to Hamilton.
"We've come to a crucial point where it's no longer acceptable to stay silent. Parents with special needs children are shouldering hundreds of thousands of dirhams of debt to enable their children to attend schools. They pay double or triple the fees paid by their peers for the same access to education. Is this the least restrictive environment we're talking about?" asks Hamilton.
All these hurdles have encouraged Hamilton to learn more about other with similar experiences and do more for inclusion. A few years ago, she started a project called I am ME (most extraordinary) to document the inclusion journeys and challenges faced by other families in Dubai through interview and photographs.
"Every week, I receive calls from distraught parents who are struggling financially and emotionally because of the high costs that are not in alignment with true inclusion. It is important to understand the impact of inclusion or the lack thereof on children as well as their families," says Hamilton.
With regard to Dubai's new inclusive education policy framework, Hamilton points that it's a very exciting and challenging time for educators in Dubai, who have the power to make a difference, to find ways to make inclusion work.
"I urge educators to connect with parents of differently abled children; they're resourceful, resilient, passionate, and strong people. Share your ideas with other schools to find the best possible pathways for the greatest good of all children. Support your teachers by giving them the tools they need to adapt curriculums to cater to differently abled children. In this regard, there's no competition; we have to work together," she says.
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