BEIRUT: Lazy, annoying, a hopeless case – in a country underserviced and undereducated with regard to special needs, such are the terms parents of children with learning disabilities can expect to hear.
“The problem is that the services are not available and the culture is not available,” Dr. Nabil Costa, the coordinator of a project set on changing precisely this state of affairs, told The Daily Star.
Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s launch of the April 22 National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties, Costa, who is also the director of the SKILD (Smart Kids with Learning Differences) center, describes how children with special learning needs are often mislabeled as unintelligent and therefore marginalized, when in fact they simply require a different or specialized learning method.
Given that, Costa says, somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of children in Lebanon are affected by learning disabilities, there is an immediate need to address such misconceptions and ensure these students can access the education facilities they need.
To date, however, initiatives to advocate for and integrate children with learning disabilities into mainstream education have largely been initiated by NGOs and civil society groups.
Indeed, Costa says, presently public schools do not offer integrated special education programs, nor does the government subsidize schools that are helping children with special needs.
“We will always be politically busy, but we can’t always say we’re busy,” he says, in reference to the usual excuse offered up by politicians in the face of many public policy failings.
However, the government’s shortcomings in this sector are not something the Education Ministry denies.
Education Minister Hassan Diab acknowledged at the launch of the National Day Wednesday that although Lebanon was one of the first countries in the region to sign the convention on the rights of the child, its schools still refuse admission to children with learning difficulties.
However, the minister said: “Integration is a fundamental right of all children, especially the students with learning disabilities. Achieving such integration is not impossible, but it requires planning and preparing the necessary human resources for spreading awareness.”
Diab was frank about the task ahead of his ministry, saying that although some steps toward integration and awareness-raising have been taken, no results are apparent as yet.
Rita Ghareeb, assistant director at the Education Ministry’s Directorate of Counseling and Guidance, which has responsibility for special education, also admitted that research and progress in the area of learning disabilities has been limited.
While the ministry presently has no statistics to offer on the number or placement of children with learning disabilities, Ghareeb told The Daily Star that research is presently being conducted and that a report should be forthcoming in the next few months.
“We’re trying to work on a project of inclusion,” she said. “We’re in the process of developing strategies and working with both local and international NGOs to develop policies.”
Moreover, the ministry, despite admitting that Lebanon is underdeveloped in this area in comparison with other countries, has some lofty ideals: We’re trying to really be the ones to play a role model in the Middle East,” Ghareeb said.
In the meantime, parents’ options are limited. To access the specialized assistance their children need, they must seek out private institutions with special education programs.
Such schools, Costa said, are rare. He estimates only 30-40 schools in the country accept children with special learning needs.
In 2008, the Lebanese Autism Society published a guidebook, listing 41 schools that accept children with autism and other learning differences. The organization’s president Arwa al-Amine says that today the number is higher, but that schools don’t want to mention their names because their special needs programs are already full.
The geographical distribution of schools is also a concern.
In the LAS guidebook, 15 of the listed schools are in Beirut, nine in Mount Lebanon, 10 in south Lebanon, five in north Lebanon and two in the Bekaa Valley.
“In the north and south the presence [of schools] is much weaker than in Beirut,” Costa said. “We need to triple efforts outside Beirut.”
Both Costa and Amine also note that there is no standardized accreditation system for special needs education programs, meaning that quality varies from school to school. Costa particularly notes the uneven quality available across the country, saying that the “most qualified” programs are to be found in Beirut.
Costa adds that parents can expect to pay up to double the usual school fees for a child with special needs. Bluntly, he says, “If you don’t have enough money, you can’t help your kids.”
Costa’s organization SKILD, which currently operates programs in five schools, consults with tens more, and provides services to over 200 children, endeavors to counter this limitation by offering scholarships for those who would be otherwise unable to afford the tuition fees.
“We are doing the role of the government at the moment,” Costa says.
SKILD also works to counter much of the misperceptions surrounding special needs, by conducting standardized psychological assessments of children and interpreting them before placements are made.
The lack of such assessments prior to diagnosis is another major problem in Lebanon, he says, with children often being labeled and even medicated without an appropriately qualified professional being consulted.
It is hoped the National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties, with its accompanying workshops, conferences and campaigns, will go some distance toward dispelling much of the ignorance and misinformation surrounding the issue in Lebanon.
The inaugural National Day for Children with Learning Disabilities will commence April 22 at 9:30 a.m. at UNESCO Palace.