My last blog in May of this year told the story of the “local difficulties” we have encountered in Dubai in striving to provide a stimulating and challenging learning environment for those children who find conventional schooling either uncongenial or simply overwhelming. The striving continues!
I was reminded of the extent of the challenges we all face as special needs educators whilst watching a short film about the opening of Undershaw. Undershaw will now operate as the Upper School to Stepping Stones, where I had the privilege of being Headteacher from 2007 to 2015, which will continue as the Lower School. For those who are curious, you can (and should) view this film, which was made by Crossform Media, one of Larry Sullivan’s suite of business concerns. We were reminded of the shocking statistic that up to 95% of young adults with special needs or disabilities are either not in meaningful, long-term relationships or in full time employment, with many being denied both. David Forbes-Nixon, whose Foundation took on the Herculean task of restoring Undershaw, has frequently described this state of affairs as “unacceptable” and in the aftermath of the Rio Paralympics, its unacceptability is that much more keenly felt.
I am a very reluctant member of the Facebook community but it has enabled me to keep in touch with a significant number of former students of mine from the era between 1989 and 2015, when I managed two quite different special schools. One of them was a gold medalist in Rio, another is an Anglican priest, another an occasional radio chat show host and yet another a professional photographer. At least four ex students are now two happily married couples and I know of two stand-up comedians, one actor and a stage manager. One young man married his carer, two have written books and a significant number have earned degrees. I fear, nonetheless, that the success stories, delightful and re-assuring though they are, are exception rather than the rule and that the bleak datum cited above is the quotidian experience of the majority. “Not a whole lot, unfortunately” was the Facebook post response to my enquiry as to what one young man was up to in his life and work.
Here in Dubai, the Community Development Authority has established a committee to explore (and hopefully, extend) the opportunities for those with SEN to enter the world of work; there are one or two shining examples of good practice. One large commercial concern speaks of its desire to “create value through gainful employment, where difference is welcomed and all benefit.” A visit to one of its retail premises will allow you to see this worthy vision translated into practice. A UAE Federal Law aims “to provide high-quality medical care and social services, boost public awareness and contribute to integrating people with disabilities into society and reaffirm their participation in social development.”
Several voluntary organisations offer day programmes, where, for example, young adults with disabilities can attend an art studio in a part of the city much frequented by tourists. One can watch the work being created and then buy similar work in the shop, which is aptly named, Mawaheb – meaning the Arabic word for talented. They also offer refreshments in the café, staffed by both the artists and volunteers. One cannot resist a comparison between Mawaheb and the Stepping Stones coffee shop, also known as The Cookie Bar.
I would have to say that Dubai is not a city where you would expect to find too many examples of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR.) However, the business world has more power and influence than is often realised and it can certainly use that power to make charitable donations (very worthy) or to source only Fair Trade products (very responsible). Whilst both contributions have their place, there is also the capacity to work towards altering the balance of the labour market in an effort to bring people of all backgrounds, ages and interests together. We may have to call this positive discrimination, but I would not shy away from this. I remember the debate within the British Labour Party about the desirability of all woman shortlists for the selection of parliamentary candidates, which when implemented – worked! Labour now has the highest proportion of female MPs of any party, not just in Britain but also across the EU (the leaving of which, incidentally, I much lament)
We have come a long way in ending (or, at least, reducing) discrimination against minorities; the UN Charter of Human Rights is widely adopted throughout the world and is respected in most member states. In an earlier blog I mentioned that, when I trained to be a teacher back in 1972, we were informed that up to 5% of children were “ineducable.” I went on to say that these kids are now being educated, often to degree level, in many countries across the world. There are states, however, which are now where the UK was in the mid 20th century; most of the children are in schools most of the time until the age of 14, but some remain stubbornly outside the system. Governments and NGOs are alert to this state of affairs but these are problems without instant and durable solutions. For example, the 2015 census of schools in Uganda, carried out by the Ministry of Education and Sports, identified no more than 3,760 children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) attending secondary schools, nationally. The fact is that many more children with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy are surviving the infant years and will be knocking on the doors of their local schools; we are getting much better at diagnosing learning difficulties and devising means of accommodating these within education, generally.
Readers of a more mature age will recall that the “statement” of special educational need (now replaced in England and Wales by Education, Health and Care Plan) was a development made as recently as the 1980s. There is, at least, one legacy of the Thatcher era, which your author is pleased to acknowledge!
When I moved into the world of special education in 1989, I found myself teaching children with spina bifida and haemophilia; the former has declined from 30 per 10,000 live births to less than 3 in the West, whilst boys who inherit the latter are very properly embraced within the mainstream. In 1989, autism was a rare diagnosis; dyslexia was thought by some to be rather fraudulent. I make these observations to illustrate that special needs is not a constant; nor, therefore, can our response be anything other than flexible and based securely on the particular needs and circumstances of the individual. What parents crave within education is genuine choice; what young, educated adults seek is genuine opportunity. My Facebook correspondent wants to do a whole lot with his life. Making a school or a workplace accessible is the easy part; changing attitudes and mindsets is the difficult bit. One plea, however; do not feel sorry or show pity for someone with a physical or learning disability; try not to call them “inspirational” when they have done something rather mundane, but have nonetheless done it well. Never, of course, talk to their parent or carer as if they were not there because, believe it or not, the “does he take sugar?” mentality still exists – I saw and heard it writ large only a few days ago in a restaurant here in Dubai.
I end this blog on a personal note (though, in truth, much of what I write is about me!) I will be significantly reducing my commitment to Widad and to the COINS Foundation after Christmas and looking to leave the region and contemplate retirement in early May. My sojourn in Dubai has not been without incident and trauma but I have been very privileged to have worked alongside some very talented and dedicated professionals, drawn, as is usually the case in Dubai, from all around the world. As always, the real joy of working in education lies in observing children have fun and make real progress. The staff here should feel a real sense of pride and achievement in the remark made to me by a mother, just last week, to the effect that her son has made more progress at Widad in one term than he achieved in the whole of his previous year in school. Would that 6 year old (who is now reading and writing) have been written off as ineducable at the start of my career?