People stare at them, families give up on them and society sees them as a burden. Hasan Shaban sits down with experts to learn why we must help children with disabilities integrate with normal kids and interact with society
*Ahmed from Barka had not seen the inside of a school until two years ago. Born with Down syndrome, the 12-year-old spent his time cooped up at home. His parents and brothers could hardly communicate with him.
But today, he is a student of grade four in a mainstream school.
Ahmed is among many children in Oman who have got a chance to study in a mainstream school as part of increased awareness among parents, thanks to the efforts of the government, dedicated associations and committed schools in spreading the message of integration.
Ahmed and many others have been lucky but there might be many others who have still not seen the walls of a school.
There is so much we need to do for the benefit of children with disabilities that makes them an integral part of society and schools.
The first World Report on Disability, produced jointly by the WHO and the World Bank in 2011, estimated that the number of children (0–14 years) living with disabilities ranges between 93 million and 150 million across the world.
The type of disabilities in children includes autism, Down syndrome, multiple disabilities, hearing impairment and developmental delay. Integration is vital for children with these disabilities, especially in schools, to help them participate in different areas of social activity.
According to the Global Partnership for Education, a global fund dedicated to education: “Denying children with disabilities their right to education has a lifelong impact on learning, achievement and employment opportunities, hence hindering their potential economic, social and human development.
“To ensure that all children enjoy their basic human rights without discrimination, disability inclusion should be mainstreamed in all policies and plans. This applies to education systems, which need to promote inclusion by ensuring the presence, participation and achievement of all children, including children with disabilities.”
Says a parent of a child with Down syndrome: “While the Omani government has done much for children with disabilities, we must do more as a society. Haunted by the startled eyes of people, labelled “different” and, in some cases, unseen, many children with disabilities in Oman are seen as a burden, and their own families, in many cases, give up on them.”
He adds: “These children find it hard to lead a normal life. But when given a chance, children with disabilities are more than capable of overcoming barriers.
There are many reasons to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to learn and interact with their peers without disabilities. Integrating students can be beneficial for children as well as for their parents and families. If mainstream schools find it difficult to include extreme cases of disability we need more schools that dedicate to their needs and cause.”
Al Injaz Private School is one such school which has a section for the special needs at Al Ansab. Understanding the growing need for special education services in the country, the school caters for the students whose academic and developmental needs cannot be met through mainstream education.
Special educators along with on-campus speech, occupational and physiotherapists work in close co-operation with the parents to ensure overall development of these children. The children are partially integrated with mainstream students to develop them socially and functionally.
Amitha Sharma, Director of Al Injaz Private School, explains that educational ethos across the globe today is that of inclusion.
“It’s overwhelming to see the life of children with disability and that of their parents improve dramatically when they get suitable support from schools. As a society we must not see the disability before the child, instead we need to focus on the potential and abilities of children with disabilities,” says Sharma.
“In our social integration programme, we mix the children in sports and art classes, and the morning assembly too.
Many autistic children are fantastic artists and in fact other kids try to copy their work. The school yard is entirely decorated by plants grown by the children themselves,” says the director who is proud of her students’ achievements.
“Many of these children are gifted in different ways,” says Sharma adding: “We had an autistic kid who had a photographic memory and we encouraged his parents to take him outside Oman so he could better hone his skills.”
The school does an evaluation test for the students that includes questions on their growth since birth. “We have a special curriculum for them and we chose it according to a child’s abilities,” Sharma adds.
“I have been living in Oman for more than 30 years. I have seen that the country has made a lot of progress to include children with disabilities into the mainstream. Though it might sometimes require 15 times of repeated lessons to teach a child with disability, they do understand in the end.
When children with disabilities are schooled with children without disabilities they acquire age-appropriate social skills by watching their classmates or schoolmates without disabilities. Integrated settings provide a lot of benefits for children with disabilities: they become more independent and obtain developmentally advanced skills, make friendships and start getting a positive self-image,” she says.
Every mainstream school that takes the decision to integrate children with disabilities needs the support of parents who have normal children.
“Not all parents are happy with the integration programme. Some parents refuse to have their kids in the same classroom with children with disabilities. Often it is the children who are accommodative of the children with disabilities,” Sharma says.
The director of the school explains that the significance of involving children with disabilities cannot be overstressed. Preconception can be successfully reduced through interaction and activities that bring together children with and without disabilities.
According to the World Report on Disability, “Ensuring that children with disabilities receive good quality education in an inclusive environment should be a priority of all countries.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the right of all children with disabilities both to be included in the general education systems and to receive the individual support they require. Systemic change to remove barriers and provide reasonable accommodation and support services is required to ensure that children with disabilities are not excluded from mainstream educational opportunities.”
*Anjali, a parent of child with autism, says: “To get your child included in a regular classroom is a dream come true for parents like me. We want our children to be accepted by society and to have an opportunity to have social interaction. Inclusion in classrooms helped my child with special needs a chance at leading a normal life. I think more and more schools should start having more integration policy.”
While there are many mainstream schools that are integrating children with disabilities in Oman, various associations here are rendering yeoman service
Al Aman Rehabilitation Centre
Functioning under the Ministry of Social Development, Al Aman Rehabilitation Centre provides services to children with physical, mental and partial disabilities. The centre prepares them for integration in educational, training and rehabilitation institutions according to their abilities and skills.
The Association of Early Intervention for Children with Disability
The Association of Early Intervention for Children with Disability provides a comprehensive programme for intervention with children with disabilities from the date of birth till the age of nine to help their integration at formal schools and meet their daily needs.
The association seeks to alleviate the burden of the disability on disabled children and their families.
The association is the only one of its kind in the Sultanate which provides services from the date of birth. The association provides an integrated service for early intervention for children with special needs that enables them to register in regular schools, whenever possible, or improve the conditions of their disabilities to enable them to live a better life.
The objective of the association is to build the capacities of workers and volunteers to enable them to contribute to providing services needed for children with disabilities.
It aims at maintaining coordination with public and private organisations to plan the necessary services for children with disabilities; acting as a reference point for information to help conduct studies and research about children with disabilities; as well as providing staff members and volunteers with training to enable them to provide the appropriate services.
The Oman Autism Society
The Oman Autism Society is a charitable organisation based in Muscat, established on February 10, 2014, by Ministerial Decree No. 29/2014.
It deals with autism spectrum disorder (autism) related issues and helps raise awareness and understanding of autism in Omani society. Its mission is to raise awareness in the community, training the parents, volunteers and support groups who take care of children with autism.
The Oman Autism Society also provides support for the centres that give services to these children.
The Speciality Centre for Autism
The centre aims at providing services to encourage a better understanding of autism and offering specialist services for people with autism and those who care for them. Among the services and facilities it provides are:
• A safe place and therapeutic environment for the rehabilitation of autistic children, including proper staffed accommodation, with all-day camera surveillance.
• Detailed explanation of information about autism to those who take care of autistic children.
• Diagnosis and evaluation of the child according to the latest standards under the supervision of qualified staff and autism disorder specialists.
• Guidance to the family of the autistic child on how to deal with the disorder.
• All therapeutic means to the autistic child, including occupational therapy, speech treatment, behavioural therapy, psychotherapy and academic qualification.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy