The experience that shocked my thoughts into words

‘We have a long way to go before developing programs that are actually beneficial for people with special needs’

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A young woman with visual impairments is getting help from a tutor on her schoolwork and homework.
Gulf News

An Emirati mother of an autistic child moves from Dubai to the outskirts of London, UK and then to Munich, Germany, in search of a promising treatment centre for her child with special needs. Does this seem reasonable? It never made sense to me. Why did she uproot her entire life and move away from her family and other children to seek a facility in a foreign country?

Now, it is clear to me.

As a requirement for one of my senior courses, I, along with my peers, was asked to complete a number of volunteering hours working towards community change. Immediately, I was interested in volunteering at a special needs school or centre. First, I found a private organisation that offered rehabilitation, speech, physical and occupational therapy and other services. On my first day of observing the occupational therapist’s work, I knew that I would not be able to continue in that place. I observed over five sessions he had with his clients and during each session, he would take phone calls, have conversations with colleagues, make small talk about irrelevant matters with me and make jokes on behalf of the children right in front of them. I was disgusted with this behaviour, and I went in search of another organisation.

This time, I decided on a bigger institution; a school-like environment that aims to provide quality education and therapy services to children with special needs. Upon arrival on my first day, I was assigned to a second grade class and told to assist the teacher and help with the children’s tasks.

First of all, I noticed the range of disabilities within the one class. A child with a learning disability who could speak and move and converse very well for his age was seated next to a boy with Down syndrome who could not form any words. Beside him was a boy with a physical disability that didn’t allow him to walk without support, but who had superior knowledge and understanding of language and mathematical skills than the rest of the children. And the differences went on.

Seeing this, I couldn’t wrap my head around how one teacher could possibly tackle all their needs and provide them with a solid education at the same time, given their vast differences in learning capacities. By the end of the first day, my suspicions were tragically confirmed. What I saw in those six hours that I sat there was class after class of activities that were just intent on passing the time. Instead of providing each child with a specific task that reflected his or her abilities, a YouTube cartoon video with absolutely no educational value was played for them to sit and watch. And rather than developing the children’s fine motor skills with particular activities that, again, suited each one, they were all given paper and coloured pencils. Despite this tragic realisation I made about another disappointing special needs organisation, I decided to continue, so as to see how the other classes would be.

The shock that followed when I worked with a nursery class that consisted of children around the age of five was exceptionally painful for me. Again, the ranges of disabilities varied greatly and the activities were just as pointless, but what shocked me the most was the teachers’ constant yelling and negative words. Reflecting back at the organisation as a whole, if someone were to ask me about my opinion on whether they should register their child or not, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Should I start with the unqualified faculty members, the unsanitary equipment and tools, or the utter disregard for treating children with the compassion and respect that every individual rightly deserves?

After this eye-opening experience, and upon returning to class to give my professor an update on our volunteering experiences, I expected that my peers would have had better experiences. I was unprepared for their responses. The majority of them faced the same challenges and expressed the same concerns about unqualified professionals.

To answer my initial question; why would a mother of an autistic child travel halfway around the world to treat her son?

Well, she wants the best for her son. The best, while it saddens me to say, is far from what is offered in some facilities in the UAE. We have a long way to go before developing programs that are actually beneficial for people with special needs. The first step we need to take is to spread awareness about this issue, to bring in more funding from the community.

Make people aware of how lacking facilities are and how negatively they are affecting our sons, daughters, cousins, brothers and sisters. Under qualified teachers and programs that offer no educational or developmental benefit cannot be our accepted norm.

- The writer is a 20-year-old Emirati student of psychology at Zayed University in Dubai.

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