What Can We Accomplish in a Decade?
Ten years passed with all their seasons. They blossomed and resulted in an occasion we are proud of; we succeeded to dedicate the 22nd of April as a special day for Lebanon. It became an occasion that educational institutions, non-governmental organizations, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) celebrate together, with an important part of the Lebanese population, namely specialists in education and human rights. This has become the date on which we celebrate the National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties.
Ten years have passed since our partnership with MEHE, the Center for Educational Research and Development (CERD) and the British Council started. Undoubtedly, this success is an occasion to be proud of our achievements; but more importantly, we should pause to reflect on what we have achieved and plan how we will complete this project, which requires concerted efforts to reach the ultimate goal.
The Goals Behind the National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties
The idea and determination to dedicate a national day to celebrate this occasion annually stemmed from our desire to raise awareness about, and to shed light on, a difficult reality. For years, the size of the marginalized segment of our society with difficulties resulting from developmental or behavioral disorders and/or because of physical disabilities, has been increasing. Nowadays, no less than 15% of our students (not to mention their parents and families), suffer from marginalization due to the absence of all kinds of support although this is the right of every human being.
Raising awareness was the first step a long list of targets that we decided to pursue. We wanted, and we are still working, to educate parents and the community, to establish a culture of inclusion in education, and to make everyone clearly realize its importance for children and youth to have the opportunity to learn with their peers. At the same time, our determination began from a strong sense of responsibility towards families of children with learning difficulties and disabilities; it translated into a relentless effort to urge private and official educational institutions (i.e. MEHE) to help spare students who face challenges from negative feelings as they struggle to avoid having to repeat their class, or to sit for remedial sessions, and/or makeup exams, and/or searching in vain for a school where they can enroll and receive the specialized education they need.
Our project to stop the marginalization of students with special needs and their families, also includes efforts to improve legislation. All stakeholders – the state, educational institutions, and charitable societies – are aware of the importance of relentlessly working towards this goal. As such, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, CERD, and the British Council have thankfully endeavored to give this matter a great deal of attention; they have supported our efforts to take effective steps to amend and improve laws and legislations, as well as their implementation.
The Most Prominent Achievements since Launching the National Day in 2013
In 2013, and over the following years, SKILD Center and its partners began organizing activities to celebrate this special day, conferences, educational meetings and workshops. The role of educational institutions and civil society should be noted with regard to accelerating the progress towards inclusion and raising awareness among parents, teachers, students, and relevant state institutions. It seems that the train set off and there is no fear of going backwards… We must be optimistic especially in light of the following facts:
– In 2012, CERD put a national plan for inclusion in public schools in Lebanon.
– By 2014, the number of inclusive educational institutions in Lebanon reached 84 schools; their names are found in a directory issued by SKILD Center and updated recently (see the publications section of the center’s website). Many of these schools are private and few are public.
– In 2016, MEHE began working to make 60 public schools in Lebanon inclusive.
– SKILD Center, with its partners, succeeded to change the name of Law 220 issued in 2000 that focused on maintaining the rights of the disabled. It became the Law of People with Special Needs in Lebanon in 2017.
These facts keep us pressing on as it is no secret to anyone that helping people with special needs in Lebanon, as in other countries, is very expensive. This means that only well-to-do families are able to help their children. The result is a country in which at least 10% of male and female citizens have an uncertain future, and their fate is either unemployment, drifting, or resorting to unlawful behavior and crime … There is no doubt that there were few attempts to support a number of children financially in cooperation with some associations. But what about the entire population of students with learning difficulties and disabilities? We must do more, to spare them thoughts and reflections like the following:
- The family can pay … Why should their son receive support? We, it is us who are in dire need, and we are deprived of it?
- There is no inclusive school nearby… We cannot move.
- My daughter is a very special case, and there are no specialists in her case… and if there is, the cost is very high… Help us.
- My son was rejected from school because of his condition… Whom to turn to and my means are slim?
Such instances make us wonder: Aren’t students with special needs entitled to enjoy full coverage of the expenses of their education and integration, similar to open-heart surgeries and dialysis? What about those who suffer from developmental challenges and/or difficulty in speaking, reading, and/or arithmetic? And what about autistic children whom we know that when they are not helped, the results are as disastrous as neglecting someone with a heart and kidney condition?!
Ten years later …
Ten years on, SKILD Center and its partners continue to celebrate the National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties. There is no doubt that awareness in the community about this issue has increased, and the number of advocates speaking out to promote inclusion has increased.
This year, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the National Day on April 27, 2022 at the main campus of Notre Dame University (NDU) in a conference that addressed topics of interest to families and experts who have children with special needs. It shed light on “What’s in Lebanon!?” focusing on:
– Services of the Ministry of Social Affairs
– laws and legislations
– Inclusive schools and their location
– Recreational places that cater specifically to children with special needs
– Parents support groups
– Opportunities to join university and other important topics.
The keynote speakers at the conference was His Excellency Dr. Hector Hajjar, Minister of Social Affairs; his speech focused on the role of the Ministry in improving opportunities for people with physical disabilities, developmental challenges, and disorders.
The conference also hosted the following speakers: Mr. David Knox, Director of the British Council in Lebanon; Ms. Hilda El Khoury, Director of Counselling and Guidance Department at MEHE; Father Bechara El Khoury, President of Notre Dame University (NDU); Head of the Psychiatry Department at the American University of Beirut Medical Center; Dr. Leila Akouri Al-Dirani Head of Psychotherapists Syndicate; and Secretary General of Catholic Schools, Father Youssef Nasr.
The audience also heard from Mrs. Elsa Zgheib; she introduced them to the campaign on social media sites and local TV screens the series (#We Need to Know) (lezem Na’rif) that SKILD Center launched towards the beginning of April 2022. It is a collection of 20 short films, each one about a minute long, that deal with topics of interest to parents and educators. The films can be viewed and shared on social media through SKILD Center website.
Everyone who has challenges, disorders and/or learning difficulties or a special need, has the right to education and to live a dignified life… and truth to be told, these citizens need our attention and efforts more than anyone else
To Conclude …
Achievements made to date are all good news, and they give activists incentive to keep striving for more towards full-fledged inclusion. Our efforts in the immediate future shall accordingly include the following:
– More consideration for the privacy of each category of people with special needs in laws and legislation, and policies.
– Clearly explaining laws and their different articles.
– Implementing decrees that have been issued and issuing decrees to implement those still need them.
Everyone who has challenges, disorders and/or learning difficulties or a special need, has the right to education and to live a dignified life… and truth to be told, these citizens need our attention and efforts more than anyone else.