People with special needs deserve a robust inclusion policy
The 2022 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony regaled audiences across the globe with spectacular flair. One of the most defining moments in the event was when the young Qatari disability activist and World Cup ambassador Ghanim Al-Muftah captivated spectators with his inspiring and timeless message on embracing tolerance and finding beauty in our differences. This message is relevant for its singular focus on the importance of enabling people with special needs to live a quality life with ample opportunities and devoid of hindrances that prevent them from participating in essential activities, such as studying, working, commuting, enjoying recreation or receiving healthcare services.
It is worth noting that the primary challenge herein lies in designing a human-centric strategy that fully captures the daily requirements of people with special needs. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion people — or 15 percent of the global population — are living with special needs. Experts estimate that the Middle East and North Africa region is home to approximately 30 million people living with special needs. Disability in the region is attributed to a spectrum of causes, including congenital disabilities, population aging, communicable diseases, limited access to health services, poor nutrition, road traffic accidents, occupational injuries, violence, and noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, musculoskeletal problems, heart disease and nervous system disorders.
Regionally, people with special needs face a number of pressing, multivariate challenges. Comprehensive country-wide data on people with special needs is limited, preventing policymakers from fully understanding the accurate prevalence rates, living conditions, health status, employment levels, access to health services and overall quality of life of people with special needs. Although progress has been made in adopting inclusive policies within education systems, many children with special needs continue to face barriers in their educational journey by being excluded and not having tailored curriculums or educational programs adjusted to their needs.
People with special needs are more susceptible to a variety of health issues and thus need specialized care by trained medical workers. More importantly, it is worth investing in a set of preventive policies to reduce the incidents of disability with effective measures related to the management of chronic diseases, occupational injuries, road accidents and communicable diseases. Overall, families who are in charge of members with special needs face significant financial stresses due to the costly treatments and care services, with limited access to full coverage or sufficient social security provisions.
Critically, policymakers in the region should work toward designing concrete policies, programs, laws and services that strive to integrate people with special needs with key social, educational and economic levers. To fully understand the situation at hand, it is imperative that comprehensive data systems are established to map out key data on disability issues, such as measuring prevalence rates and the effectiveness of educational, social, health and rehabilitation programs.
Although progress has been made, many children with special needs continue to face barriers in their educational journey
Social protection arrangements should be at the heart of any disability strategy. Governments can support families and individuals with the provision of financial assistance, coverage of health services, educational grants and funding of special equipment. Housing grants should cover the financing of disability-friendly homes, while also improving accessibility standards and ensuring the safety of individuals with special needs in the case of emergencies and evacuations. Health facilities and services should be upgraded to cater to a wide spectrum of disability-related treatments and ensure they are staffed with competent medical workers. At the same time, teams of social workers should regularly visit families and individuals in order to monitor the living conditions and quality of life of people with special needs.
Inclusive education policies play a transformative role in adapting school settings so that they can accept and teach children with special needs. Typically, such policies should commit to flexible admissions processes, tailoring the curriculum to individual educational plans, designing extracurricular activities to allow for their full participation and renovating facilities to improve mobility and access. At the same time, it is vital that teachers have the necessary qualifications and skills to teach special education students.
Elsewhere, city governments should reimagine their public spaces and transport systems to improve mobility and access, such as including step-free access and priority seating and parking, as well as wheelchair ramps. People with special needs are more likely to feel lonely or isolated and thus policymakers should also be mindful of how best to improve access to arts, cultural, sports, outdoor and leisure activities. Digitizing government services is also an excellent way of improving access for people with special needs.
Laws should be enacted to protect the rights of people with special needs. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act includes a set of transformative articles that secure people’s rights to benefit from government programs, services and activities, such as public education, employment, transportation, recreation, healthcare and social services. Employers are also required by law to offer equal opportunities with regards to employment of people with special needs, with no discrimination in recruitment, promotions, training and pay.
The UAE’s People of Determination Protection from Abuse Policy aims to protect people with special needs from all forms of abuse or exploitation, including neglect and deprivation from basic care, rehabilitation, medical care, recreation and community integration. At the same time, the policy aims to enhance the competences of professionals working in the areas of abuse identification and response, while also launching effective programs to mitigate abuse cases.
By taking note of all the challenges that people with special needs have to endure in their daily lives, policymakers can design effective, responsive and human-centric solutions that empower them to dare to dream, to participate and to overcome adversities. We will then have truly celebrated the beauty in our differences.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.