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Saudi Arabia: Special education demands special attention

JEDDAH: With the Kingdom home to a large population of children with mild to serious disabilities, providing means of education for such children on the national level has remained a major concern for some time.

There are an estimated 125,000 disabled children in Jeddah alone, of whom around 4,000 are studying. The education provided by centers that specialize in helping children with special needs is unsatisfactory, primarily due to a lack of professionals.

Uzma Raheem, founder of the Hope Center for Exceptional Needs, believes that there is a low level of awareness about educating special needs children.

“Anyone who tells you that they are satisfied with the current situation is lying big time. I am so frustrated with the dearth of professionals in this field here in the Kingdom,” she said.

“The Kingdom is in need of occupational therapists, speech pathologists, art therapists, play therapists, hydrotherapists and physiotherapists the most. Special need teachers are around but what is needed are specialists to supervise them and act as consultants,” Raheem said.

“We have to recruit professionals from abroad who are mostly women. This is a lengthy and troublesome process. When you have a dearth of professionals then you have an immediate drop in the level of awareness that is provided to both parents and new graduates. Having semi professionals lead the awareness program simply corrupts the system while parents deserve better,” she added.

Identifying this concern, Dar Al-Hekma College offers a special education program. At the moment there are 66 students taking this course, which will enable them to design strategies and literature required to teach children with special needs.

Mervat A. Tashkandi, vice dean of academic affairs and director of the special education program, said the college is the only institution in Makkah province offering a four-year special education program as a bachelor degree.

“All children, regardless of their mental abilities, can learn if they are given the proper training. Our mission is to provide teachers with the means to study the needs of special needs children,” she said.

“We have girls of many nationalities. We are empowering girls to become able teachers for special needs children in the future. It will surely help many special needs schools get qualified teachers. God willing, it will contribute in solving the educational problems faced by such children,” she added.

Randa Hariri, an instructor on the program, said Dar Al-Hekma students are preparing storybooks, games, charts and strategies of their own.

“We want people and schools to come and learn and adopt the strategies to make their curriculum effective. All the girls are working very hard on this. All of the items have 100 percent copyright. We are looking for publishers to print their storybooks and distribute them in the market. People must not underestimate the talent of Saudi girls. They are remarkably bright,” Hariri said.

Reem Fagih, a student on the course, said learning about and teaching children with special needs is very interesting. “It is a relatively new field of education in the Kingdom. It is a very satisfying field as we get the chance to accommodate the needs of special needs children who are widely ignored. Their numbers are increasing,” she added.

Huda Mahmood Khan, another student, said she enjoys studying this subject as it gives her a chance to explore herself. “We get to learn a lot from it. I’ve enjoyed writing stories for special needs children and it is a very good feeling. The special education program is great, as the needs of disabled children are accommodated and understood,” she said.

Dima Baz-Radwan, another student, said, “Our work is all based on the education we have taken. Once we are in this field, we have many chances to do what we want for this noble cause. We have brilliant opportunities in this field.”

Shahd Sharaf Al-Ghalib, a Saudi student who is majoring in behavior management of disabled children, said there are unlimited and effective ways of helping disabled children.  “These ways can often lead to excellent results, but their effects vary from student to student as all have different levels and kinds of disabilities. We have many educational strategies that provide easy understanding of the concepts, be it math, languages or science.”

She added that introducing a child who has mild disabilities into a regular class might enhance his or her performance. If the child, however, has a serious disability, then this might affect his or her performance and that of children who are able.

Raheem said she is excited to see fresh talent enter this field. “As with all new graduates, some turn out to be exactly what you need and young blood needs to be infused into the special needs system to introduce a fresh perspective. Initial exposure is very important for all young talents and I am a firm believer in giving people a chance, because you never know who will be the gem that you are looking for.”


Tehseen Ahmed

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