Special Needs Education: Trends and Future Outlook in the UAE

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 15% of the world lives with a disability. As of 2016, around 16,000 people with disabilities lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with 62% being UAE nationals. The UAE is comprised of seven emirates, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras al-Khaima, Al Fujairah, and Umm al Quwain, in order of population respectively.

In terms of meeting the needs of people with special needs, the UAE has made numerous advances. From the 1990’s to the early 2000’s, people with disabilities were left out of the community and lacked needed services. In 2006, Federal Law No. 29 became the first law in the UAE to protect the rights of people with special needs. In terms of education, the law now allowed parents to enroll children with special needs in any school without exception. In 2008, the Ministry of Education (MOE) began a campaign for social integration with the slogan “School for All” and established the Department of Special Education. The National Project for Inclusion of People with Special Needs (2008) focused on environment, facilities, and equal opportunities in all areas of life. During the project, 15 public and private organizations participated, 50 students with special needs were enrolled in regular schools, 12 students with hearing impairments were sent abroad to complete their studies, and 20 people (including 7 women) with special needs found employment in various institutions.  By the 2014-15 school years, 156 schools across the UAE executed the project.

The UAE federal budget of 2016 apportioned 21.2% to education with plans to hire accredited teachers, improve teacher Professional Development, develop smart learning programs, and overhaul the education curricula.  In the 2016-17 school years, the UAE had 580 schools with 60% being private. Student enrollment was approximately 584,932. The UAE has a majority expatriate population with most families preferring international schools; even 58% of UAE nationals sent their children to private schools. As of 2016, Dubai is expected to increase private school enrollment by more than 126,401 students by 2020 and Abu Dhabi’s private sector is predicted to rise by more than 40,000 students by 2021. With the expected student surge, an additional 52 private educational facilities are needed, which translates into more jobs for educators and administrators. In terms of rehabilitation centers for people with disabilities, approximately 2000 personnel worked across about 90 centers in 2016. When the math is broken down, that’s about 22 personnel working in each center. Keeping in mind that some people and students with disabilities require one-on-one care, the demand for personnel to work in various rehabilitation and learning centers will definitely increase as new facilities arise.

In 2017, further initiatives were made for people with special needs. The term “people with special needs” was changed to “People of Determination”. The UAE is developing an integrative public and vocational education system by setting up resource rooms, providing behavioral therapy, and therapeutic services for people with speech impediments. Furthermore, school curricula is being redrafted and adapted to accommodate the necessities of people of determination by providing high quality teachers and specialists and introducing undergraduate degree programs at universities for teaching children with autism and individuals with severe impairments.

Dubai plans to be one of the world’s most welcoming cities for People of Determination by 2020. Within the Dubai Inclusive Education Policy Framework, all private education is to be fully inclusive by 2020, meaning students with special education needs or disabilities may enroll in any private school or university without the possibility of refusal. In addition, schools are to allot a specific budget for facilities and resources needed by people of determination. Fees, which were once double or triple the cost of enrollment for children of determination depending on the nature of the need, must now be reasonable and reflect respectable value for the money designated by efficiency of delivery and effect on student results.

For the first time, the Special Olympics will be held in the Middle East North Africa, more specifically, Abu Dhabi in 2019. The Special Olympics inspires individuals with intellectual disabilities through the power of sport. The event is expected to have over 7000 athletes, 3000 coaches, 20,000 volunteers, 24 sports, 177 countries, and 500,000 spectators. Abu Dhabi was chosen to host the Special Olympics due to visionary governance, being at the forefront in the Middle East in the protection and promotion of the rights for people of determination, and for the development of a more inclusive and optimistic world.

From the 1990’s through present day, the UAE has strived to make the community an inclusive place for people of determination. Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE, stated, “Future generations will be living in a world that is very different from that which we are accustomed. It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children for that new world”. The current leaders of the UAE are progressive and desire to build a community of unity.

About the Author

Dr. Cara D. Williams currently works as an Assistant Professor at the Emirates College for Advanced Education in the Counseling, Special Education, and Neuroscience Division.  She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Texas A&M University, specializing in Special Education.

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