It seems 2012 is a big year for celebrations. Among others, Oreo Cookies turned 100 and Tom Cruise will turn 50, but most significantly for Dubai, Al Noor Training Centre marks 30 years at the forefront of care for cognitively impaired children.
The centre’s director, Isphana Al Khatib, has been at the helm for 14 years, and is well aware of the progress that has been made since Al Noor’s inception as a family venture in a small villa. ‘From there, it expanded to two villas, then three, then we relocated to other villas and different premises, and finally in 2007 we were able to move to a purpose-built facility paid for by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum [vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai], with the help of his wife, HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, on land that was donated by the government,’ she explains. ‘This facility has helped us provide a very good level of service to the children, and opened up the possibility for us to expand.’
Al Noor’s focus for the past 30 years has been to provide training and developmental therapy to children aged three to 18, and its doors are open to children with any condition that causes a delay in meeting developmental milestones. The three main conditions affecting children at the centre are Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism, but Isphana explains they also help with more rare syndromes.
She believes that attitudes towards the children have changed thanks to the government’s increased awareness of their requirements over the past few decades. ‘We have come a long, long way,’ she explains.
The UAE is a signatory of the United Nations Convention for People with Disabilities, which has put focus on this, meaning there is more information in the media and as a result people are a lot more aware. There is still a long way to go, but it’s all positive because things are always moving forward.’
With increased awareness comes increased expectations, but fortunately Al Noor has been able to rise to it. It can now accommodate up to 300 children, and over the years there have been many more milestones. ‘We’ve redesigned our curriculum in the past three years, we’ve opened new departments including the autism unit and occupational therapy, we’ve added programmes such as aromatherapy, expanded the sports and music programmes, and next year we plan to add an Arabic section,’ she notes.
Even though Al Noor is only a local centre, there is little doubt the work of its staff and various programmes is far reaching. ‘We have children who have moved to the US and India and are still in touch with us, letting us know that the foundation training they had here has been very helpful,’ says Isphana. Many of the children also benefit from the centre’s satellite programmes, which include social clubs and a work placement programme for those who have reached the age of 18.
There are ambitious plans for the future. In a move to keep pace with society and adequately prepare children for the real world – as any good school would endeavour to do – Isphana reveals that Al Noor intends to include new technology in the training services offered. ‘This is a huge part of everyone’s life now. Technology has taken centre stage in everyday life, and we want to ensure this is incorporated into our training programmes,’ she explains. ‘We also want to focus on increasing literacy among children with special needs.’
While the centre has managed an impressive 30 years of service to date, to continue making progress in the next 30, 40 or 50 years Al Noor needs the help of the community. ‘We offer a subsidised service to the children, so as we’ve expanded, so have our financial needs,’ she explains. To help, it is renting out parts of its facilities, but is urgently seeking more partners in the community.
‘We strongly believe we need the support of society, because anybody can have a child with special needs,’ concludes Isphana. ‘We have an open-door policy, and we encourage people to come and see what we’re doing, or to volunteer and get involved. It can be small, large or anything in between.’