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The Blind Side of Arab Education: Disabled Students

DOHA—A conference here called “Definitely Able” tried to make sure that all could participate, with ramps to the stage to allow wheelchair access, sign language interpretation in English and Arabic, and a monitor that immediately translates speech into written words.

The two-day conference was supported by the British Council in Qatar and Sasol, an energy and chemicals company, to give a platform for disabled voices in the Qatari community, with a focus on equal access to education for people with disabilities.

Although the conference setting was unusual, it served as a reminder of how a few changes can make a real difference in disabled access to public events.

Out of a total population of 1,699,435, Qatar has 7,643 people with disabilities, according to official statistics. Qatar Statistics Authority also found that in 2010, 33 percent of persons with disabilities above 10 years old in Qatar were illiterate, while only 12 percent have a university degree or above.

Instead of boasting about accomplishments, the conference focused on what still needs to be done to improve access. Laila Darwish, head of the Special Needs Department at the Supreme Education Council in Qatar, listed four main challenges facing educational inclusion of people with disabilities: the physical learning environment needs to be changed, specialized teachers are in short supply, teaching assistants do not always understand those with special needs, and curricula have not been adapted for those with disabilities.

While Qatar has made big strides in adapting the physical learning environment to students with disabilities, the small Gulf country has a long way to go when it comes to the other three challenges.

The country’s education council adopts a unified design for all new school buildings. The design acknowledges disabled access at all government schools that are equipped with ramps for wheelchairs and elevators. Toilets and washrooms are adapted to the use of students with disabilities. Older school buildings are being retrofitted to respond to the new design guidelines.

Manal Attiyah is an additional education support needs coordinator at Al Bayan High School for Girls. Attiyah says the school has eight blind students who attend classes with other students, except for science classes.

“Blind students attend most classes with their colleagues,” she said, on the sidelines of the conference. “This helps other students get accustomed to seeing people with disabilities as part of the society. We also teach students the etiquette of dealing with people with vision impairment.”

The eight students attend science lessons in a separate class equipped with devices to transform written material to Braille, in addition to devices to record lessons, which the students can print later in Braille to review.

Moreover, government-run schools have special arrangements during exams for disabled students. Support includes giving students extra time on tests, having someone read the questions (for students with dyslexia), or having a reader and a writer to assist blind students.

Samya Hamed, an additional education-support needs coordinator at Al-Sailiya High School for Boys, says government-run Qatari schools respond well to the needs of disabled children or those with special learning difficulties.

“I had a case where one student required a specific sitting chair in the classroom. I notified the education council and a tailored designed chair was brought from the USA for the student,” she said.

Hamed says the physical environment at government schools in Qatar is perfectly adapted to children with special needs. “What we lack are changes to curriculum to respond to the abilities of these children,” she adds.

Anwar Al Said, Programme Education Specialist at UNESCO Doha Office, agreed. “There is more to catering for the disabled children’s education than building wheel chair ramps and providing elevators in mainstream schools,” Al Said told conference participants.

Al Said said that educational systems in the Arab world are not prepared for people with disabilities, whether in practice or even in regulations.

“Yes, we open schools to students with special needs, but do we have teachers and educators who can deal with these children? Are educators qualified to educate these children?” Al Said asked.

He added that education faculties in the Arab world qualify teachers to deal with students of average intelligence only and don’t include teacher preparation for special education.

Acknowledging the gap, Qatar University launched a master’s degree in special education seven years ago. A bachelor’s degree program will also be introduced in the coming academic year. The university also offers  a diploma designed for teachers who already have bachelor’s degrees but would like additional training in special education. All the programs are open both to Qatari nationals and expatriates.

The picture is much darker in other Arab countries that are not as rich as Qatar, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

A professor of Islamic studies at the University of Friedrich-Alexander in Berlin, Georges Tamer, understands exactly what it takes to pursue education as an individual with a disability in the Arab world. Infected with poliomyelitis at his infancy, Tamer was unable to attend school is his home country, Lebanon, because schools were not prepared for children with disabilities. Moreover, transportation was not adapted for disabled people. Tamer had to study at home. Since those studies were irregular, he didn’t finish high school until the age of 25.

“I couldn’t continue higher education in Lebanon for the same reason: Higher education institutions are not suitable for students with disabilities. This was in the mid 80’s, today the situation is almost the same,” Tamer told the conference.

Ahmed Habib, communication and outreach manager at Mada Qatar Assistive Technology Center, a nonprofit organization that helps those with special needs use computers and other technology, had a similar experience in the United Arab Emirates. Suffering from a significant mobility disability, Habib says he wasn’t accepted at any primary school in Abu Dhabi where he lived with his parents.

“I had to attend an American school because other schools didn’t accept adapting to a child with mobility disability at that time. The school fees were very expensive, but fortunately my family could afford it,” he said.

Habib continued his education in Canada. Returning to the Arab region after 30 years, he was disappointed to see that the situation hasn’t changed much since then.

“There are efforts of various levels at different countries, but in general disabled children still have no real chance for inclusion in mainstream educational institutions in the region,” he said.

A report on disability in the Arab region issued in 2014 by the Economic and Social Commission of Western Asia (ESCWA), states that disability prevalence ranges from 0.4 per cent in Qatar to 4.9 per cent in the Sudan. However, the report warns that such statistics must be taken with caution, since the widespread use of inaccurate censuses for measuring disability in the Arab world, along with other factors such as the presence of social stigma, may discourage people from reporting disabilities.

Another challenge that children with disability often face is the social stigma that comes with their condition. “We don’t see disabled children in school books, drawings, or other educational material. So other children are surprised to see disabled colleagues,” Habib said.

Habib told conference participants about the work of Mada center to develop assistive technologies to ease digital access to learning platforms for people with disabilities. That work is difficult. “The acute shortage of solutions and educational content in Arabic is a real problem in the Arab world, ” he said.

Moreover, a significant number of hearing-impaired children can’t read and write. This decreases their chances of benefiting from the available assistive technology, according to Habib.

Habib said that school is just one part of the problem. “We shouldn’t deal with the issue in parts; disabled at school or at home or at workplace. Rather we should look at the whole picture. Moving independently across the city, visiting museums, participating in various activities; these are all part of a comprehensive educational experience,” he said.

The education session at the conference concluded with a fundamental question that no speaker had an answer for: Physical learning environment aside, how does Qatar evaluate the quality of education provided to students with disabilities?

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Qatar University’s special education programs are only open to nationals. 


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