Including Children with Disabilities

Ali’s ear-to-ear grin illuminates the room he’s in and energizes everyone that it lands on.  He is not aggressive, plays well with his peers, waits for attention, and brings joy to his classroom.  He responds to his name, can identify his bus, and never wanders off.  But before he enrolled in the Core Program this past summer, this five-year-old could not speak. [youtube=]

As one of the first children in the Core Program with severe developmental disabilities, Ali presented needs beyond the usual scope of TYO’s work.  He needed screening, medical reports, and a targeted intervention plan to help him reach his potential.  Despite the challenges of properly attending to Ali’s needs, TYO’s staff agreed with his mother that he deserved a loving, nurturing, and structured environment in which to grow and learn.

We were able to find funding to give Ali ten weeks of speech therapy with a specialist. After that, we approached the disabilities union in Asker, Ali’s refugee camp, for additional therapy. The union required tuition that Ali’s family was unable to pay, so we reviewed his abilities and needs and invited him back to TYO’s Core Program as a regular participant.

During Ali’s first session with TYO, we had assigned one volunteer to attend exclusively to him. The volunteer received training about Ali’s needs and the best ways to support his growth. Initially, Ali spent about 75 percent of his time doing one-on-one activities with his volunteer. Now, during the fall session, Ali is able to spend about 75 percent of his time in activities with the rest of his classmates. He tells the teacher his name, claps along with songs, calls Suhad—TYO's psychosocial program manager—“my aunt,” and repeats words that he hears. Reflecting on TYO’s experience with Ali, Suhad says, “We’re pleased to have him, because he teaches us that nothing is impossible. But we need people committed to the kids. We need people who believe in them."

Challenges to Inclusion

TYO began to actively consider the issue of inclusion two years ago, when Suhad participated in the Lebanese American University’s conference, Inclusive Education and Diversity in Early Years.  She presented a paper about TYO’s experience with a different kind of inclusion—bringing children from refugee camps and the city together in the classroom to cultivate mutual understanding and respect.  Other presenters at the conference discussed how to create curricula that invite children with disabilities to be a part of the system.  Since that time, Suhad has been thinking about how to incorporate these inclusion techniques into TYO’s programs, especially with the 4 and 5-year-olds, in order to build a healthy, supportive, and inclusive environment from the beginning of their school experiences.

Despite TYO’s best efforts, several challenges make it difficult to build inclusive programs here in Palestine. First, there are few experts in Palestine who are qualified to diagnose and treat children with disabilities. This presents two problems—few children with disabilities have access to the one-on-one attention they need, and even fewer teachers have access to the training they need to build inclusive classrooms. Even when trained professionals are available, many families do not have the resources to give their children the support they need. In most cases, parents have to pay for speech and occupational therapy as well as transportation to and from the session. Thus, many disabled children have no access to the services they need to be able to reach their full potential.

Second, mothers and families need training and therapy themselves in order to be able to appropriately care for their disabled children. Due to a lack of resources and knowledge, many mothers become depressed, maintaining no hope for their disabled children. Consequently, they begin to reject their children, exacerbating the challenges that their children face. On the other hand, some mothers are over-protective of their children.  By limiting their disabled children’s opportunities to engage with the outside world, these overprotective mothers likewise make it more difficult for their children to grow and learn. Of the experts trained to support disabled children, few have practical experience with children from refugee camps, whose experiences with physical abuse, trauma, overcrowding, poverty, and other pressures render their needs and those of their families more complicated than usual.

Finally, there are few advocates for children with disabilities who remind the community that these children are human beings who deserve to live with dignity, respect, opportunities, and love. Schools and businesses alike tend to reject these children, viewing them as a burden, rather than empowering them to make their unique contributions to Palestinian society.

TYO's Inclusion Efforts

TYO is attempting to overcome these challenges to inclusion.  This fall session, we have accepted an additional four students with severe speech delays, hyperactivity, and attention deficit.  In order to serve them appropriately, we invited Hala Jarrar, a professor in special needs at An-Najah University, to discuss the children’s needs with their mothers and make recommendations for including them successfully in the Core Program.

In order to address these children’s unique needs without separating them from their classmates, they spend the usual 30 minutes in the Concentration Room doing activities tailored to their needs.  A volunteer from An Najah who is studying special needs has created a lesson plan for the five children.  She works with them while the rest of the children in the class do their own concentration activities.  Thus, the children get the individualized attention they need while participating fully in the class and class community. At the end of this session, we will analyze the successes and failures of this pilot program in order to guide our future inclusion efforts.

In addition to addressing the children’s needs directly, we are also committed to giving their mothers the skills and support they need to care for their children.  For example, five-year-old Muhammad arrived at TYO a few weeks ago unable to speak.  He was nice and cooperative, but not a happy child.  Suhad met with his mother and discovered that Muhammad is the fifth child in his family—and the only boy.  In addition to being overprotective, his mother denied that he had a disability. Through Suhad’s efforts, she is now in therapy at a Nablus women’s center, learning strategies for dealing with her own concerns and for supporting her son.

Ultimately, we hope that TYO will have the capacity and resources to provide much-needed services for all of Nablus’s most disadvantaged children, including those with developmental disabilities.  Furthermore, we hope that, by supporting and empowering the mothers of children with disabilities, we are cultivating a group of strong advocates for disabled children in the communities where we work.  Finally, by exposing students and volunteers alike to an inclusive environment, we hope to transform Nabulsi society from the inside out.  Inclusion benefits not just disabled children, but also their families and communities.  By being an intentionally inclusive space, TYO is contributing to that transformation.

Please share your recommendations for resources or experts who can support TYO’s efforts at building a more inclusive Core Program and society.