“Listen, just listen,” Fatma Al Jassim said as she urged community members to intentionally listen to and include the voices of students with disabilities during a recent panel discussion at American University in Dubai. As the United Arab Emirates (UAE) education sector transforms from segregation to integration, and is leaning towards inclusion, following Fatma’s advice would ensure that the topic of inclusion itself prioritizes and includes the voices of its subjects to better understand their evolving needs and implement effective policy and practice reforms.
With HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s announcement of 2019 as the Year of Tolerance, the UAE continues to focus on initiatives emphasizing coexistence, respect, and compassion as core virtues of society. The visionary “School for All” mission, in conjunction with momentum from the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 and efforts for a fully accessible Expo 2020, provide a revitalized outlook on tolerance that includes different physical, behavioral, and intellectual abilities within the scope and conversation.
Fatma, along with two other panelists, shared her perspective on the current state of inclusivity in the UAE for the special needs community, known as People of Determination (POD). The panel, “Perspectives on Inclusive Education,” was held at American University in Dubai and included two POD: Fatma Al Jassim, the youngest member of the advisory council for empowering POD, and Zayed University student Chaica Al Qassimi, Special Olympics Torchbearer, martial arts athlete, and Inclusion International Advocate.
The State of Inclusion Worldwide
As the largest minority in the world, the needs for People of Determination vary. Encouraging POD to voice their personal needs sustains a focused path towards an inclusive society, develops empathy, and ultimately includes and invests in POD as rightful experts and leaders in diverse fields. Without their inclusion, an environment of organizational, attitudinal, and communication barriers develop. As humans spend, on average, 11.5 % of their lifespans with a disability, such advancements benefit all. According to Chaica, “If you don’t educate and help us to be part of inclusion, then how can we be part of it...we can’t change who we are…we are all equal.”
The current state of research and best practices world-wide follow the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The United Nation’s forthcoming #Envison2030, has set 17 transformative, global goals to even further advance the state of inclusion. Most notably, Goal Four guarantees equitable education, Goal Eight promotes and accessible job market, Goal 10 emphasizes social, economic, and political inclusion, Goal 11 creates sustainable, universally accessible public spaces, and Goal 17 prioritizes data collection of the SDGs in action. When coalesced, the agenda seeks to develop and support meaningful, just interactions for POD with their daily surroundings.
The State of Inclusion of POD in Educational Spaces in the UAE
Within the UAE education sector, rising awareness, further teacher training, and allocation of resources encourage improvements for inclusion. For instance, application of Least Restrictive Environment in some schools, a theory of education that maintains maximum time possible for learning in a general education setting with peers, permits growth for all students. The UAE’s efforts to include POD in the general education system drive success stories like Fatma and Chaica, paving the way for other students with different needs.
Fatma’s journey as a student and the obstacles she overcome inspired her to become the first Emirati internationally certified in the field of Professional Accessibility for POD. She now volunteers as a consultant to ensure accessibility for public spaces in the UAE, knowing by experience and expertise the necessary accommodations required. Fatma recalled that, “When I was a first-grade student, there was no physical accessibility measures in the UAE,” and she explained that with the development of Federal Law No. 29/2006, continuing transformations within private and public schools are providing physical access to school buildings and facilities for POD.
Fatma also holds trainings across the GCC, including her annual “People of Determination Support Training” in the UAE. Fatma’s successful inclusion in the workforce positively contributes to the knowledge and economy of the region while simultaneously shifting mindsets of what POD are capable of. Coupling precedence, such as Fatma’s success, with inclusive attitudes allows other POD to join the inclusion narrative as well, fulfilling the SDGs, and more importantly, ensuring that everyone can live meaningful, diverse lives.
Inclusive schools and facilitation of appropriate resources as the norm empower students with different abilities and their peers to challenge harmful stereotypes from a young age. For Zayed University student Chaica, unrelenting assistance from her family, educators, and support teachers strengthened her to prevail in instances of bullying, allowing her to graduate from a general education school. She has proven her abilities as a student at every stage, and she is soon to be a college graduate.
The third panelist, Mona Khreis, who is the Director of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at the International Academic School in Dubai, shared her own shift of thought as an educator when a student with dyslexia entered her classroom. “I didn’t know what is dyslexia, so it was a challenge for me. I was afraid, until I started reading about what dyslexia is and what a student of determination is.” Motivated, Mona sought her own resources to grow as an educator and advocate. This has allowed her to prioritize new and legitimate perspectives to ensure effective policies and better practices in her own classroom, as well as in her peers’.
Creating spaces for POD voices as the conversation on inclusion continues to remain urgent and essential. For an inclusive education system, and therefore society, the implementation and conception of policies and practices must also hold an inclusive spirit. The successful journeys of these advocates within general education challenge the stereotypes and negative notions of mainstreaming, while their difficulties encourage further support and development for an inclusive society. Through holding space for POD, such voices thrive, serving as personal advocates and empowering future generations.