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For Students With Disabilities, the Pandemic Adds Another Barrier

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The United Nations estimates that 95 percent of children with disabilities in the Middle East and North Africa are excluded from school at the primary level, and that adults with disabilities, especially women, have less access to employment than their peers without disabilities.

“The disability movement in the Arab world has yet to herald the most important issue pertaining to people with special needs, that of raising awareness and eradicating the stigmatization twinned with disability,” says Al-Malki. “Although the topic of disability and mental health in the Arab world is discussed, the way it is addressed is profoundly controlled by socio-cultural norms and attitudes,” she adds.

One of the biggest challenges for students with or without disabilities, is that their learning environments are often not tailored to their needs. “Disability is often invisible and those students will face added challenges that will never be made known to others,” Al-Malki says. Students with severe learning disabilities rarely are able to enroll in higher education. Students may be misunderstood for behaviors or attitudes outside the mainstream, she explains. This is often true for students in the autism spectrum, or those who have dyslexia, among others.

“Unless effective systems are in place to identify such specific cases and staff are trained to deal with them, there will be very little that can be done to help,” she says. In the case of physical (or sensory) disabilities, which are visible, challenges include barriers such as stairways, heavy doors, poorly lit corridors, but also learning materials that are not adapted to such students’ needs.

“The lack of access in itself will make such students feel left out and discriminated against,” she says.

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Nadera Alborno, an associate professor of education at the American University of Dubai and a specialist in accessibility to education, says Covid-19 has transformed education for those with disabilities in some parts of the Arab region: “It has the power to give students greater access to learning as well as more personalized and accessible learning experiences.”

The adaptations include virtual reality headsets, screen readers that recite text aloud, Braille typewriters, progressive software programs, touch screens, interactive displays and speech-recognition software. However, inequality has been exacerbated in poorer parts of the region by those who cannot afford devices, Internet connections and even electricity.

The American University of Dubai is home for some 90 students with unique challenges who go through detailed screening during the admission process. Student services and health services offices work together, with accommodations varying according to the needs of individuals, and with special arrangements for seating, exams, or digital devices when needed. “The physical accessibility of the campus has become a priority and it is a learning process with every new student that the university welcomes,” Alborno says.

Barriers in Sudan

People with disabilities represent about 4.8 percent of Sudan’s population, according to the National Coordination for Persons with Disabilities in Sudan, and about 14.4 percent of the disabled live in the state of Khartoum, where many Sudanese, including those with disabilities, migrate in search of education, work and services.

Fakhr El-Din Awad, head of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities in Sudan, says institutions specialized in educating people with disabilities can only accommodate 1 percent of all students with disabilities. “Even for those who are absorbed, many obstacles stand before them, preventing them from continuing in education.”

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