BEIRUT: In a small classroom of the Lebanese School for the Blind and Deaf in Baabda, Rafa Rizk, 15, demonstrates the art of typing in braille. “What’s your name?” she inquires enthusiastically.
Upon my response, her fingers move dexterously across the keyboard and produce the letters in their braille format. Once the task is complete, she tears the paper from the typewriter and hands it to me. “There you go,” she says.
In May, Rafa, one of the stars of the school’s choir, will travel to Abu Dhabi to perform at a Gala Dinner which will also serve as a fundraiser for the school. At the end of the school year she will enroll in a mainstream secondary school in Ashrafieh.
“I know it will be a challenge,” she acknowledges, “but I am looking forward to it.”
Rafa is one of the lucky ones.
A lack of state funding coupled with society’s reluctance to change is hindering the integration of visually impaired students into mainstream schools. There are 6,556 visually impaired people carrying disability cards in Lebanon, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs. Five hundred and three of these people are under the age of 19. The majority of visually impaired students under 19 study in specialized schools that cater to their disabilities. These include the aforementioned LSBD, Al-Nour School for the Blind on the Beirut International Airport road, and the Nazek Hariri Center for Human Development in Aramoun.
“The national policy is to exclude the blind children from their families and wider society in special schools and organizations rather than integrate,” says Amer Makarem, himself visually impaired and president of the Youth Association of the Blind – one of several organizations in Lebanon pursuing programs for the inclusion of students with special needs into mainstream schools.
“Every time a new minister is appointed we are hopeful, but they usually say there is no budget for our projects,” laments Makarem.
Makarem says only 15 percent of his organization’s budget is covered by the Social Affairs Ministry. This contrasts markedly with the situation of specialized schools for the blind. At the LSBD in Baabda, for example, the government contributes around 55 percent of the budget.
Meanwhile, Y.A.B. employs a mere six support educators to assist 26 students in seven schools in Beirut, Sidon, Nabatieh, Minyeh, Chouf and Tripoli. Each support educator earns around $600 a month.
According to Ibrahim Abdullah, head of the Lebanese Universities League for the Blind and a former student at the LSBD, the Lebanese government has yet to engage with the integration process.
“It is easier for them to deal with it like that [focusing on specialized schools],” he observes. “Nobody can deny the positive role that specialized schools have played in the absence of new government initiatives, but it is time for a change.”
A similar sentiment is expressed by Nawaf Kabbara, head of the Lebanese Council of Disabled People. Kabbara describes figuring out why the Lebanese government is hesitant to integrate students with special needs into the mainstream educational system as “the million dollar question.”
Kabbara believes that while there have been numerous successful examples of integration, the administration and teachers at government schools remain generally unprepared for the challenge, lacking as they do the required infrastructure and training. He notes that, additionally, opposition to the inclusion of visually impaired students in mainstream schools has been expressed by the parents of other students, who fear that the quality of their own children’s education would suffer as a result of such an initiative.
For Kabbara, “Without direct intervention by the government we cannot solve this problem.” Yet he concedes that the situation is unlikely to change.
Hyam Fakhoury, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Social Affairs, argues that while the government supports calls for integration, the basic necessities of such an undertaking remain absent. As a result, “in Lebanon there is no chance of integration,” she says.
Fakhoury points out that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975) – which paved the way for the development of an inclusive approach toward the education of people with disabilities – was issued the same year that the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) began. Throughout the Civil War and its aftermath, it wasn’t possible to develop any sort of mechanism at educational institutions for absorbing disabled students.
While “the world shifted to a new concept,” says Fakhoury, “Lebanon has taken too long to adapt to it because of the war.”
In Fakhoury’s view, “no one ever wanted to marginalize [the blind], but [marginalization] is a consequence of there being no alternative.” For her, implementing integration “requires a total shift in the social concept in the entire education system; facilities need to be improved and staff trained – you can’t shift from isolation to integration overnight.”
Fakhoury notes that the Educational Institute of Research and Development is currently reviewing all school programs for disabled students, but that education for the visually impaired is costly and usually develops in tandem with advancements in the field of computer technology. “We shifted from braille to computer technology,” she notes, but goes on to observe that “we need 100 more Amer Makarems and 1,000 times the funding.”
Specialized schools for the visually impaired have called for an increase in government support for their own tentative integration programs. Jeannette Chamoun, vice president of the LSBD, says, “Whenever we find an opportunity to integrate, we do, but they [the Ministry of Social Affairs] don’t realize that integration is the most important issue. They have to open the doors of public schools for those that want to study there.”
Over the course of the 1990s, arguments for the inclusion of disabled students in mainstream schools grew widespread, due to the belief that their isolation in specialized schools perpetuated social stigmas and militated against their enculturation in mainstream society. Article 24 of The U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (2006) enjoins signatories to ensure that: “Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education on the basis of disability.”
But Lebanon has yet to ratify the convention, unlike several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.