BEIRUT: Nestled in the green, breezy hills of Mansourieh is a sanctuary for incredibly resilient and cheerful students. They are part of the Step Together family, a school and vocational community for children and adults with special needs. Their sanctuary, however, is threatened by lack of governmental funding.
With the recent austerity budget planning to cut government spending, organizations like Step Together are extremely vulnerable.
According to the head of Step Together Dr. Reem Mouawad, the organization hasn't received government payments for over four semesters. To make matters worse, the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) didn't renew their contract with the school in 2019.
Step Together faces a paradox: students with special needs registered with MoSA can bypass school fees, but the government repeatedly fails to fund the needed share.
The school currently accommodates 130 students registered with MoSA with no income to cover their services. “What’s even more stressful is that there’s no strategy,” Mouawad said.
Lebanon’s Law 220, established in 2000, grants persons with disabilities access to healthcare and education, but it's yet to be implemented adequately. According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, many students are rejected from public schools because of their disabilities.
“If the government cannot support this, how can we operate? Technically, the government is violating the contract. They are supposed to pay us and they are not,” she told Annahar.
Simply speaking, the government nominally ensures the rights of children with disabilities but fails to financially support those rights.
Lebanon’s problematic practices towards special needs are deeply rooted. Schools like Step Together are educational institutions and should be engaging with the Ministry of Education, not MoSA, explained Mouawad, who has a Ph.D. in special education.
Mouawad’s German mother founded a diagnostic team during the Civil War, which Mouawad developed into a school. The school’s educational philosophy is based on Rudolf Steiner’s model, which emphasizes creativity, spirituality, and inclusivity.
The campus provides a serene environment colorfully dotted with blooming flowers, away from the polluted city. In one room children and adults are found practicing yoga under dimmed lights.
Randa Tawakalna is the mother of Yusuf, a student at Step Together. She said Yusuf’s self-esteem increased when he moved from a regular school to Step Together.
“Usually schools for children with special needs are run like a business. They over-charge and they give you treatments that the child doesn't need,” but Step Together is different.
She further noted that “Step Together is very humanitarian," adding: "I remember a time when Youssef was unhappy, so I spoke to the coordinator at school and she started crying, I was really struck by her reaction.”
Tawakalna chooses to pay the tuition as long as she has the means to, knowing that Step Together doesn't receive sufficient funding.
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