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Special Education Policy in the United Arab Emirates

Shifting perceptions about the educational opportunities for students of determination
is foundational to realizing the full promise of inclusive education. (Alzyoudi et. Al, 2021)

I was introduced to special education as elementary student when I accidently stumbled upon the department while enrolled in a private language school in Cairo, Egypt. I had no idea the program existed and after entering the area where the classes were held, I quickly realized why. The students were segregated from the mainstream students because many of them were diagnosed with down’s syndrome. The experience I felt being amongst the students stuck with me and later morphed into my motivation to major in psychology and later become a teacher. It also pushed me into my professional career. The stigma that students with disabilities faced was evident to me and similar to their drive to surpass barriers, my drive was to ensure that the issues they faced and the resources they needed were brought forth through my advocacy work in education.

My career as an educator began in 2009 at an international school in Cairo. It was during my time there that I became strongly aware of the stigma that special education students face, not only by their peers, but also by their teachers. In private settings, I personally witnessed adults describe them as “cases,” which is a negative assumption that something was wrong with them and more so that they were “unteachable.” Yet it was these views that strengthened my determination and advocacy to fight for them.

After teaching for a few years, I decided to pursue my doctoral degree at Drexel University and enrolled in a program called Educational Leadership and Learning Technologies. At that time, I knew very little about special education policy in the United States (US) but I knew much about policy related issues in Egypt. I eventually took on a research assistant position and was assigned to work closely with Dr. Mary Jean Tecce DeCarlo. She had much more knowledge about special education in the US and because of it, our relationship grew stronger. Our shared passion for special education and advocacy resulted in her teaching me about US special education policy and me teaching her about policies in Egypt and the Arab World at large.

This new understanding and information about policy later evolved into my dissertation research which investigated special education policy awareness and teachers’ perceptions about special education at three international schools in Cairo: an American international school, a British international school, and an International Baccalaureate school. The findings from my dissertation study were very interesting and inspired my decision to inquire into teachers’ perceptions about special education and policy in other countries and at different types of schools.

Utilizing the same research design, Dr. DeCarlo and I took on a research project to investigate perceptions of teachers in Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates (UAE). We were drawn to the UAE because its special education and inclusion policy was quite progressive and comprehensive. It was much different from that of Egypt, but we curious about comparing the perceptions of teachers in Egypt to perceptions of teachers in the UAE. With our awareness about school diversity in Ras Al Khaimah, we decided to modify our sampling methods to include teachers in public, private, and international schools.

In the beginning of the research, we hypothesized that there would be a large difference between the study results of Ras Al Khaimah and Cairo, particularly regarding policy awareness. In the case of Ras Al Khaimah, teachers’ awareness of special education policy was highest. However, for both Ras Al Khaimah and Cairo teachers, there was very little understanding about policy knowledge assessment. While educators generally had positive perceptions about inclusion toward students of determination, their perceptions drastically changed when asked about particulars including:

  1. Teaching students of determination in their personal classrooms;
  2. If their schools had the ability the meet the needs of the determined ones;
  3. Whether students of determination had the right and ability to learn in inclusive environments or if they should be schooled in segregated schools.

Comprehensive details about the study and its results and recommendations can be found in our policy paper entitled Special Education Policy in the United Arab Emirates: Knowledge and Implementation in Ras Al Khaimah.

Overall, this research study revealed an imperative need for teachers to gain more confidence and self-efficacy with regards to teaching students of determination. We believe that the most effective solution to this issue is to target pre- and in-service teachers during their early years of introduction into education profession. The results of this study confirm that educators in Ras Al Khaimah positively support inclusion of students of determination. However, transformational inclusion requires support from educational leaders throughout the duration of their careers. Such support should include innovative pathways to shift teachers’ negative perceptions and beliefs about special education into positive ones that yield effective instructional practices.