The Covid-19 pandemic has generally increased inequality in education for sight-impaired, hearing impaired, and learning disabled students in the Arab region. For a few students who face physical challenges, moving education to their homes has brought some benefits.
As is often the case, the situation varies enormously, from Gulf countries to middle-income countries such as Egypt, to poorer, more conflict-affected ones such as Sudan.
Laws have been passed to support inclusivity in education across the region, but experts say those laws need to be enforced and outdated campuses and policies must change. In the Gulf, where university campuses have often been built more recently, life for those with special needs is still a challenge, but less so than in those countries with old buildings, limited budgets, and a lack of disability-friendly transportation. Additionally, the need for technology and Internet connectivity has added another obstacle that excludes those from rural regions and poorer neighborhoods. (See a related article “The Shift to Online Education Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
For some students, the new system of remote learning will “boost their self-esteem, because they will not be exposing their fragilities and will be achieving their goals,” says Amal Mohammed Al-Malki, the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad bin Khalifa University, in Qatar. “However, we must remember that like others, there will be those who will prefer learning in the traditional classroom. Learning is as much about socializing as it is about acquiring knowledge and there are people who prefer human contact to virtual exchanges. It will be a matter of personal preference, in the end.”
Al-Malki says that remote learning, if set up adequately, may also turn out to be an advantage to learners with milder intellectual disabilities. “Learning in the comfort of the home, with ample time to explore content and carry out activities can be very helpful. It is those with severe intellectual disabilities that may require extra attention,” she explains. Such students need support from a family member or a tutor.
The pandemic is allowing educators to experiment with new approaches, Al-Malki says, and so-called “special education” is being given a chance to reinvent itself. “The present circumstances are calling for a change in paradigm and in our beliefs about disabilities by showing us that that there are opportunities where we thought there were drawbacks,” she says. Remote learning is what gives educators the opportunity, she says, to center education on the learner.
Making Inclusivity Central
Hamad bin Khalifa University strives to make inclusivity a central pillar of the university, she says, from physical campus features to research agendas to courses and degrees. Training programs include methods for subtitling for the hard of hearing and audio description for sight-impaired students.