| Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The extra mile

Joanna England looks at what’s out there for kids with special needs

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Years ago, when my younger brother attended a well-known special needs school in Dubai, my parents found themselves in a dilemma. My brother’s condition meant he was severely disabled on almost every front – and, though he enjoyed being at school, his time there was suddenly limited. ‘The waiting list here is very long. Places are in huge demand – and Luke’s just not advancing very much,’ they were told by the then principal.

The crux of the matter was that much more able children, also classified as having special needs but who were not allowed to be integrated into mainstream schools by UAE law, had nowhere to go. The principal faced a problem: should she continue to use her limited resources on a child who wasn’t making much progress? Or should she give up on him because she knew another student would benefit more from the facilities?

The decision was never taken and, thankfully, times are changing. The term ‘special needs’ covers a huge spectrum, from severe physical and mental disability to mild dyslexia to the child who’s streets ahead of his peers. Some schools in the UAE now welcome children who have extra educational requirements, while general public awareness has improved ten-fold. But the waiting lists at dedicated special needs schools are still painfully long. Take Mona for example: a sociable and fashion-conscious 19-year-old, she hasn’t been to school since she was 10 years old. Why? Her wheelchair-bound condition combined with learning difficulties meant no mainstream school would offer her a place. But she never even made it off the waiting lists of any of Dubai’s special schools either. As a result, she’s spent a lonely, frustrated decade at home. ’Her family have tried so hard to get her a place at school – but nothing ever came up,’ explains her carer.

And Mona’s case is not so unusual. Francesca McGeary, an independent UAE-based educational consultant, says that, while parents’ options are now better, educating a special needs child in Dubai is challenging. ‘Three or four years ago you didn’t see many children with special needs around in the community. Now, you can find mainstream schools beginning to accept these students, which then helps to raise awareness in the general population. But until things are noticeably different all over, parents must continue to help themselves.’

Clive Pierrepont, director of communications for educational services company Taleem, believes mainstream schools should provide more places to children who are classified as having special needs. But he says hands are still tied by law. ‘Learning support departments cost a lot – and, according to current regulations, these costs can’t be passed on to parents in the form of additional fees. But schools should be there to serve their community – and you can’t call yourself a community school if there are certain students you can’t include because of financial constraints.’

He adds that if a school is willing to pay more for a top football coach so that its sporty students can have the best opportunities, why can’t more cash be invested in advancing the special needs side of things? ‘Education should support every kid – because every kid has a talent and that deserves to be fostered.’

By Joanna England
Time Out Dubai,

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