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The Challenges of Disability Inclusion in the Arabian Peninsula

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Finding a school for a child with disabilities should not be a difficult task. When asked if the school was accessible for my 3 year-old daughter in a wheelchair, the answer was almost always, “We do not have special education teachers.” Given that my daughter’s disability is physical and does not require special educators, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened by the ignorance and discriminatory language with which I was brushed off by these schools. What kind of society accepts discrimination even in its own schools?

Living in the Arabian Peninsula is undoubtedly a privilege. Due to the diverse blend of people from all over the world who live in the region, there is an exceptionally wide range of school curricula selections for our children, which supposedly all offer world-class learning. Learning, however, can only go so far when schools do not adopt a fully inclusive, non-discriminatory policy. It took having my own daughter to realize that the majority of schools in the region whether British, American, Finnish or International, discriminate against children with disabilities with very little push-back from the public.

According to a study by the World Bank regarding disabilities in the Middle East and North Africa, about 10 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa region has some sort of disability, and disability and poverty are “inextricably linked.” One reason they’re linked is perhaps due to the fact that disabilities in the Middle East are a taboo, and public spaces are not accessible. People rarely speak out or fight for their rights or the rights of their children. Many families hide their children with disabilities out of ignorance and fear of judgment from society, ultimately dehumanizing them and subjecting them to all sorts of negative stereotypes.

Nevertheless, accessibility and disabilities are slowly becoming topics of discussion in our society, even if rarely followed with action. Anti-discrimination activists have taken to social media to offer an insight into the lives of people with disabilities, putting a human face on the issue and raising awareness about their capabilities, needs and struggles.

At a recent lecture held at a hall with a long flight of stairs, a lecturer with no physical nor mental challenges stood and talked about inclusion. When the lecture was open to questions and answers, a friend of mine with cerebral palsy asked why a lecture about inclusion was held at such an inaccessible venue. She then added that any lecture, particularly one tackling inclusion, should be accessible to all segments of society through assuring that the venue is physically accessible, copies of the program are printed in Braille and a sign language interpreter is present.

A State’s main resource is its people. When an entire fraction of the population is marginalized, society will not reach its full potential. Societies, institutions and governments need to implement inclusion and take integration to the next step by tapping into the minds and capabilities of those with disabilities rather than ostracizing them. Schools in particular can not afford to discriminate. Not only will inclusion help students with disabilities advance academically, but socially as well. The benefits of inclusion extend to all students, as it teaches empathy and respect and helps prevent other children from growing up into adults who mindlessly discriminate. As inclusion becomes the norm, people with disabilities will no longer be seen as outcasts, the stigma surrounding disabilities will slowly disappear, and those with disabilities will finally be empowered.

In this day and age, education is a basic human right. No one has the right to decide whether or not a child (or adult) is “able” to attend an institution whether it’s a kindergarten or a Ph.D. program at university. Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison all had some sort of disability; where would the world be without them today?

*Update: Since writing this I have finally been able to find a truly inclusive kindergarten for my daughter. The kindergarten follows the German Early Years Curriculum.

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Originally published: April 3, 2017
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