Marking the 10th anniversary of the National Day for students with Learning Difficulties, SKILD Center hosted a conference in collaboration with the Notre Dame University (NDU) to celebrate the occasion in the presence of Dr. Hector El Hajjar, Minister of Social Affairs, and Director of the British Council in Lebanon, Mr. David Knox, among other distinguished guests. With the goal of discovering what are the laws, services, and status of inclusive education, the segments of the conference where divided along different topics and included a word from the keynote speakers: Coordinator of the National Day and SKILD President, Dr. Nabil Costa, TV presenter, Ms. Elsa Zgheib, Director of the Counselling and Guidance Department at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE), Ms. Hilda El Khoury, and NDU President, Fr. Bechara Khoury.
Dr. Costa’s speech emphasized inclusive education as a duty, particularly on the level of policy-making, stating that “God created these children in His image . . . We need to discard this language of pity and sympathy, and focus on executing policies, the public and private sectors working hand-in-hand.” Similarly, Ms. Zgheib underlined this responsibility on the parental level. Ms. El Khoury then summarized the progress of the MEHE in the past 10 years in increasing inclusivity in Lebanese schools, with a target of completing this implementation in each institution by 2030.
Fr. Khoury related the topic to NDU’s Mission, affirming that the uplifting of the individual is inherent in the University’s structure: “When we recognize these differences, we no longer judge the other as good or bad. Instead, we can clearly see that each person is valuable in their own right.” In addition, Mr. Knox asserted that the measure of a society’s progress has everything to do with how it treats the vulnerable.
The first segment of the conference began with Dr. El Hajjar outlining the efforts of the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), reinforcing that educational inclusivity depends on legislation. He stated: “Once the MoSA had established that this is a policy issue, we were able to take the necessary steps to advocate for these children.” Dr. Leila Akouri Dirani, President of the Lebanese Order of Psychologists, brought attention to the factors contributing to the development of learning difficulties, including genetic predispositions, environment, and social support. The phase concluded with Dr. Reem Maouad, founder of Step Together, an association dedicated to working with NGOs, civil societies, and ministries to advance the progress of inclusivity.
The second segment described the training workshops and modules for teachers and specialists, presented by Ms. Rania Ghsoub, Head of the Pre-service and In-service Training Bureau at the Center for Educational Research and Development in Lebanon. Ms. Ghsoub shed light on the need for academic assistance for school teachers and principals, a point reinforced by Ms. Tatiana Salloum, National Consultant for the Development of Inclusive Education Policy to the MEHE. Wrapping up phase 2 was Director of the Department of Special Education at Azm School, Ms. Khouloud Khouja, who explained the subtypes of class inclusion, namely: total inclusion, partial inclusion, parallel classes, and special classes. The conference in segment three focused on special education programs available at Lebanese universities such as NEXT STEP provided by the American University of Beirut (AUB), INCLUDE at the Saint Joseph University (USJ), LEAP at the American University of Science and Technology (AUST), and the IDEAL Program of NDU. Dr. Fadi Maalouf, Head of Psychiatry at AUB, shifted the focus in segment four from children with special needs to their parents, teachers, and specialists, highlighting the burnout they experience that is often undermined and dismissed. He further discussed the process of diagnosis, administered by pediatricians, pediatric neurologists, and child psychiatrists.
The event ended with a heartfelt experience shared by Ms. Betty Maamari, the parent of a child with learning difficulties and the coordinator of the parent support group at SKILD, who showcased the struggle of parents in similar situations and the lack of social support that they receive when raising their children. Ms. Maamari shared the weight of this responsibility and how it permeates other areas of parents’ lives, including marriage and their other children. Seeing this lack, she founded Parent2Parent, a social support group where parents can meet to discuss their struggles, worries, and insecurities in raising their children with various disabilities, providing them with a space that bears no judgement and encourages their efforts.