A consensus is growing among GCC states that they must revamp their systems for educating students with disabilities, so that these students improve their learning experience and live to their full potential.
However, there are numerous cultural and institutional obstacles, and success depends on a large ecosystem of stakeholders coalescing to change the status quo.
For starters, there are several reasons that GCC countries tend to underestimate the number of students with disabilities: poor awareness and assessment by teachers and parents, unclear diagnostic standards to detect and classify disabilities, and a socially ingrained reluctance to acknowledge disabilities. This masks the level of need.
Even when there is an early and correct diagnosis, educational and support services are sometimes deficient. A lack of qualified special education professionals means that students often receive the wrong educational methodologies and assessments. Insufficient coordination among entities in the public, private, and third sectors means some services are duplicated and others are not provided. GCC countries also do not realise the full potential of new assistive technologies that can greatly help a student’s ability to learn.
Fortunately, GCC states recognise these shortcomings. While each country has a different starting point, they share a commitment to students with disabilities, as enshrined by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
To achieve these goals, GCC countries should adopt a learner-centric approach to special education. We believe this approach must address four key components. It begins with understanding the individual needs of each student, then organising learning and support ecosystems for him or her, and deploying the correct assistive technologies.
A learner’s special needs are typically identified at school or home, and then reported to a medical provider. The medical provider must correctly assess the learner’s disability to develop an individualised educational plan (IEP). GCC states need to ensure standardised early diagnosis of special needs and mandate the implementation of IEPs. In this way, special education professionals properly support these learners’ specific requirements, which vary depending on the type and severity of the disability.
IEPs also specify different types of support for each educational stage, transitioning from preschool to general education to higher/technical and continuing education.
There also has to be a learning ecosystem. GCC states should support a full spectrum of learning environments so options exist to fit a learner’s specific needs, including fully inclusive educational settings, partially inclusive, and specialist schools. Inclusive systems help to socialise students with disabilities and simultaneously educate mainstream students about those with disabilities.
However, these inclusive programmes must be managed closely so teachers are not overwhelmed, students with disabilities do not suffer bullying, and school budgets are not stretched. This variety of learning environments allows special education professionals to escalate or de-escalate the level of intervention as necessary.
The learner also needs a supportive ecosystem. It is important to involve parents and caregivers in the education of students with disabilities and offer a range of support services appropriate to the type and severity of the disability. To manage the right balance of services, fully or partially inclusive schools should offer basic support resources for mild and moderate cases, and partner with external service providers on an as-needed basis.
GCC education systems should integrate assistive technologies. These are devices that help people with disabilities perform daily activities with greater independence. Education systems can combine increasingly advanced assistive technology with different educational methodologies – such as ‘flipped classrooms’ and virtual reality – to support social and educational inclusion.
Indeed, assistive technologies are advancing quickly, unlocking new ways to care for students with special needs. For example, robots are playing a key role supporting autistic children.
For this learner-centric approach to succeed, governments need to launch public awareness campaigns to remedy underreporting. These campaigns should teach people to recognise when a student has disabilities and must destigmatise the diagnosis. Governments also need to define and coordinate responsibilities across public, private and third sector actors, enforce diagnostic and educational standards – and be ready to step in to address any gaps.
By doing so, governments will fulfil an obligation to care for their citizens and will bring immense societal and economic benefits to students with special needs and their families.
Fadi Adra is a partner at Strategy& Middle East