Ability to tackle disability in Ethiopia, Pakistan & UAE: a personal reflection
Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim
Thankfully, it is beginning to be easier to have a child with a disability, even here in UAE or in places like Pakistan, India, Africa. But there is a long road to travel yet.
In fact, recently, a mother told me she had found it easier to get around with her child in a wheelchair here in UAE, than she finds it in the UK! But that is just one aspect...
Ethiopia in the 1970’s
Forty years ago in Ethiopia, in the Danakil deserts of Eritrea, as a young Speech and Language Therapist, I found my profession useless. The people there did not need my services.
Speech Therapy was an irrelevant and unheard-of luxury, among the stick-thin swollen-bellied Afar children whose main concern was to find enough basic food and water to survive. There, survival of the fittest was certainly true.
I saw very few children with disabilities in those grim famine times.
But they were there, the ones who survived that dreadful drought, mostly out of sight, cared for by people who were barely surviving themselves, and there was little help and few resources for them.
Later, in my eventful time there, my knowledge of literacy and linguistics did become useful: I helped develop a script for writing Afaraf, a language that was not yet written. But that is another story – though it contributed to the ability of those people to learn new things, not just those passed down verbally through generations.
Eventually it even helped them become able to tackle the issues of disability.
Pakistan in the 1980’s
Over thirty years ago, in Pakistan, children who were ‘different’ were either considered to be little ‘angels’ to be kept secret at home, or little ones who the Evil One had touched, to be kept out of sight and hidden so others would not see the shame that had tainted your home, or they might vilify you for what must have been your sin in bringing such a child into the world.
Gradually, in the time of Zia ul Haq, in the late 1970’s, things started to change. One of President Zia’s own children had congenital difficulties that set her apart from her ‘normal’ siblings, and attitudes began to transform for children with disabilities in Pakistan.
The Military leader treasured his disabled daughter not by hiding her but by taking her, in her own little army uniform. She was seen with him on many public and general occasions: she stood beside him, and people saw her disability. They also saw that she made progress in learning and talking. I had the privilege of teaching her and giving her speech / language therapy each week for more than a year, and she learned to speak in English, and Urdu, in spite of her profound deafness.
I recall still with a smile the day when, after a long lesson with me, she welcomed her Father as he emerged from his Chief of Army car, telling him excitedly that she had learned how to roll her ‘rrr’, and demonstrating the new sound in Urdu words! And she sounded distinctly Scottish in saying English words! Such excitement for both Father and daughter!
This was of course, only one snippet of the weekly triumphs we had as we saw this little girl starting to be able to communicate so people could understand her.
Whatever may be thought or said of Zia ul Haq and his politics, this is an aspect of his leadership that deserves full acclamation, for the way he encouraged the development of Special Education at a time in Pakistan when it was only just an idea. He poured support into helping Centers and special schools to develop, and professionals like myself to provide advice, training and support for the newly emerging field of services for people with disabilities.
Because of this special link I had with his daughter, I saw the assassinated President and his family in a completely different way from the way others saw him. From talking with him, I could not help but believe in his passionate desire for Pakistan’s good and progress.
Similarly, here in UAE, our far-sighted leaders of the Emirates are pushing towards full implementation of laws for equal opportunities for people with disabilities, and opportunities for all children to have education. Laws at both Federal and local Emirates levels are in place showing the high purpose of bringing opportunities for all children to have education, whatever their disability.
It is encouraging to have calls from schools, panicking because their KHDA inspection is coming up and they know their SEN provision is lagging. What is an "IEP?" they may ask for example. Rather than be horrified, I am delighted as this shows that progress is happening!
All this is fast bringing UAE in line with ‘developed’ countries like UK, where these laws are still being gradually implemented fully, catching up at least 50 years in the space of this young country’s life.
The main limitation to implementation is the human factor – as it was and still is in UK! People have to ‘catch up’ with the ideas, by learning new skills about helping children to be included when they cannot keep up with the main curriculum. Learning how to make the learning easier for these children, learning how to deal with unusual children in their classes and schools: enjoying the acceptance of these little ‘oddballs’ who teach us so much.
It is an exciting time here in UAE, where I am only one of so many expats, who, with local Emiratis are striving to make the best education happen for all children in this amazingly diverse part of the world.