Changing the Face of Special Needs Education in the UAE


By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Difficult, lazy, hopeless.

These are just as few disheartening terms used to describe children with disabilities in a country with an underserviced, undereducated and uninterested in a special needs education system.

A few non-profit educational institutions in the UAE, however, hope to alter the mindset and prejudice towards special needs individuals in the region.

With the ultimate goal of integrating special needs individuals into society as “independent, motivated individuals,” the Special Needs Future Development Centre in Karama, UAE, helps its students acquire the necessary skills needed to prepare them for mainstream life.

“We need companies, hotels to come forward to take on these youngsters in internships or part-time jobs,” said Safia Bari, director of the centre, in a National article. “Once given a task they will not rest until they complete it.”

One of the few centers in the country that take on young adults too old for early-intervention schools, SNF has changed its curriculum to focus on necessary daily life skills for its 39 wards aged 14 and older with various conditions including learning disabilities, visual, hearing and motor impairments, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

Vocational training classes range from housekeeping and shopping for groceries to photo copying and data processing.

Shonly Varghese, a 20-year-old student at the center, helps monitor the mock-up home and office sections filled with items to allow students to practice everyday activities including a bed, washing machine, ironing stand and photocopier.

“Everything I like,” said Shonly. “I tell what to do…I don’t shout. I want to work hard.”

The Developing Child Centre in Dubai is another institution that aims to serve children with learning differences or special needs for families who cannot afford or do not have access to the necessary services.

Founders Dalya Tabari and Nof Al Mazrui pledged 75 percent of their profits to the “Hibah” gift fund “to support families in the Emirates that require financial aid to provide the help their children need to succeed and overcome their challenges.”

The fund will be open in January 2014 and accessible to all qualifying families in the Emirates.

“We want everybody to access quality services,” said Al Mazrui. “Every child deserves that.”

Tabari also has an 8-year-old son with an attention deficit disorder.

“Every once in a while I have a nightmare and wake up and think, what if we weren’t able to support him?” Tabari said.

Many institutions also host several programs and initiatives to raise awareness and garner support from the community.

In a recent 4-week project sponsored by the AMBB construction company, the Dubai Centre for Special Needs had 60 students paint a 40-meter wide mural on a construction site board to bring awareness to the center.

The students taking part in the project had disorders such as impaired hearing, autism and Down’s syndrome.

Under the theme “Dubai and food,” the colorful mural included silhouettes of some of Dubai’s most popular landmarks such as the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa filled with images of the food they loved the most, ranging from cupcakes and pizza to apples and eggplants.

Mahaweb from Beautiful People, an art studio for adults with special needs, also held an exhibition last month titled “I’m special…you’re special” to raise awareness about the talent of people with special needs.

The exhibition included 18 art works by 17 artists on display at Art Couture at Al Badia Golf Club, Dubai Festival City.

“It is important these art works are displayed in proper galleries like this and not tucked away in corners or at school exhibitions,” said Wemmy de Maaker, founder of Mahaweb. “The quality of the art work is of high standards and it is important that people with special needs get the opportunity to be treated like everybody else.”

There are still challenges in the overall education system that range from lack of investment and services to selective admissions criteria and high-ranking schools that do not follow inclusion policies.

However, the drive and initiative of a handful of centers and programs in the region is a start to change the prejudice towards the special needs population to raise awareness and provide opportunities for them to live up to their full potential.




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