How inclusive is education in the capital?

We take a look at the benefits of mainstream schooling for children with special needs and what the future might hold

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With the Special Olympics World Games set to be hosted in the capital next year and new legislation that promotes inclusion introduced in the UAE, the country is definitely experiencing a wave of awareness when it comes to integration – and education is no exception.

With that in mind, we talk to the experts to find out what inclusive education looks like here in the UAE and how it could be beneficial for all children.

A basic right

“When the new drive for people of determination was announced, it didn’t just come with new terms to describe disability, but also a comprehensive policy,” explains Renate Baur-Richter, programme manager at the SEDRA Foundation, an Abu Dhabi-based inclusion organisation.

“One of the pillars of this policy is education – access to it and access to suitable educational facilities,” she adds. “Each child with a disability is entitled to be enrolled at public or private schools in Abu Dhabi, but it is also on the school to decide if they have the right learning environment for the child.”

The right environment will always depend on specific needs, but as teaching and learning styles have shifted towards a skills-based future, Renate thinks that this could be a strong positive for special needs children in mainstream schooling.

“Schools are stepping up their game to provide more inclusive learning environments; this is all to do with the change in perception and approach,” she says. “The teacher is now more of a coach, and children are not forced to sit at a desk all day. This brings in more choices and freedom that benefits children of all abilities.”

Classroom benefits

With a new approach to education, what are the benefits to a mainstream school experience for children with special educational needs?

“One of the outstanding benefits of being in a school is the social learning aspect,” Renate comments. “It’s about getting connected and having the opportunity to explore different kinds of learning.”

Navis Prathibha Gnana Amuthan, special education coordinator at GEMS United Indian School, agrees: “Mainstream schooling for special needs kids really helps with the holistic side. They can develop their emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. The most important thing for
both the parents and their kids is that they can build strong and trusting relationships.”

In her experience, Navis has also noted that the relationship between a child with special needs and their peers also brings some unexpected benefits.

“Students [in classes that include children with special needs] become more tolerant and are able to support their classmate,” she notes. “It has a positive impact and breeds a good class culture.”

But, Renate notes, while the tide is turning with regard to support for educational needs, parents and schools need to work together to come up with the best answer for each child.

“School might not always be the right environment for every child, and that’s a judgement [parents] need to make,” she emphasises. “Every child is different, and many schools will not have the perfect off-the-shelf-solution – so you need to make sure they are willing to invest their time to develop a plan for your child.”

Looking ahead

So what might the future hold for special education? For Navis, she’d like to see costs reduced: “Parents incur so many costs from occupational therapy, shadow teachers and extra support. I’d like to see a discount being given.”

She wants the current upswing to continue: “It’s happening, and we do wish it would be a bit faster. We have the policies for it, and that alone is important.

“There’s a reason why we have the Special Olympics here,” she adds thoughtfully. “It’s the right time to do this. I’d like to see all these seeds that have been planted surrounding this issue really blossom. I hope that schools will more openly promote their successful examples for inclusion, not only for the child with disabilities, but also how it impacts the whole classroom.”

WORDS Camille Hogg

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