BEIRUT: Efforts to improve access to education for students with disabilities have been slow throughout the MENA region, but the 2019 ABLE Summit triggered a push for awareness and collaboration in the field.
ABLE (Accessibility for a Bolder Learning Experience) is an initiative by AUB with the aim of increasing the retention and success rates of students with disabilities in higher education.
The ABLE Summit took place at AUB on April 11 and 12, appropriately enough, April being world autism month. Under the patronage of PM Saad Hariri, the summit joined policymakers, researchers, innovators, and most importantly, people with disabilities, to collaborate on a roadmap for digital accessibility in higher education.
This event worked to redefine diversity from being limited to ethnicity and beliefs to include diversity in abilities. Speakers highlighted the need to develop more inclusive systems using assistive technologies (AT) for people with different abilities.
"Improving access to education for disabled people “is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do,” said Violette Safadi, Minister for Economic Empowerment of Women and Youth.
"Not only is it the right and smart thing to do, but by law, it is the mandatory thing to do," added Dr. Yousif Asfour, chief information officer at AUB.
Lebanon is a signatory of the Convention of the Rights of the Child that ensures that governments provide free and compulsory education for all students without discrimination. It has also signed, but not ratified, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In 2000, the Lebanese parliament passed Law 220 that was meant to ensure the basic rights of disabled people. Both Safadi and Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Sam Koplewicz, however, recognize that it is not yet properly implemented.
Rejecting students based on their disabilities is widespread in Lebanon and parents of children with disabilities are not aware of the laws that are meant to protect them. To date, there is no known legal case against these schools despite the widespread practice of denial.
“Denial is not a policy, but certainly a custom,” he said. Koplewicz underscored the gap between policy and reality in terms of accessible education.
HRW research revealed that there are currently 8,568 school-aged children nationally registered with having a disability. It estimates; however, that the real number is closer to 45,000. The discrepancy is largely due to the stigma associated with having a disability as well as issues with categorization.
As a policy expert, Koplewicz recommends that government funds should be diverted away from sleep-in institutions for people with disabilities that segregate them from society and into increasing the accessibility of public-school infrastructure and learning materials. “Separating children into institutions are detrimental to the child,” he said.
The weakness of the state in addressing the needs of people with disabilities has left a welfare gap to be filled by non-governmental entities, such as the Youth Association for the Blind, to carry most of the burden.
Asfour concluded that there is not one entity that is capable of single-handedly improving accessible education in Lebanon. Rather, society must foster a culture of inclusion that involves governance, civil society, and technology.
“We all have special needs,” said the Lebanese star Georges Khabbaz “some people have spiritual needs, intellectual needs, social needs, emotional needs, physical needs. The ones whose needs are visible are the lucky ones.”
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