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"Hope in the life": the children of Qatar speak about inclusion.

Qatar is a small country located on a peninsula in the Arabian Gulf. Its population is approaching 800,000, of whom 500,000 are guest workers. Qatar has a high per capita income, derived from oil and liquid natural gas reserves. Doha, the capital city, is home to 83 percent of the country's population (Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2006). Modernization has increased dramatically (particularly in education and social services) since Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani became the leader of the country in 1995. Reform of government schools began in 2003. Education in Qatar is now compulsory and state-funded for all nationals. It is estimated that 98 percent of the population attends school (S. Ali, personal communication, October 19, 2006). Qatar has separate government schools for boys and girls. Primary education serves grades I through 5. Most primary level teachers are female, they teach specific subjects, such as science or Arabic, and they rotate among classrooms while the children remain in the same place.

Special Education in Qatar

Qatar supports the rights of children with special needs to obtain suitable opportunities to learn and be included with other children; however, the concept of inclusion in education is relatively new. In 1975, the Qatari Ministry of Education (MOE) set up a classroom for boys with hearing loss in a general education primary school (Al Said, 2002); in 1981, a separate male school for the deaf was started, followed in 1982 by one for females. In 1984, the MOE set up separate male and female schools for children with mental retardation. Children with physical disabilities have attended a co-educational, hospital-based school since 1984. The ministry also established a speech therapy and counseling psychology unit in 1992 to provide services for children with learning and emotional problems. A coeducational private school for children with learning disabilities, providing instruction in English, opened in 1996. Children with visual impairments were sent to other Gulf countries, at government expense, or were kept at home until a private co-educational school for children with visual impairments opened in 1998. Secondary level students who were visually impaired were included from 2002 (A1 Boineen, 2003). A co-educational semi-private school for children with developmental disabilities and autism spectrum disorders started in 1999. (Note: The MOE schools for mental retardation services closed in 2006-07 and all students were transferred to this school.) To staff these schools, teachers have been recruited from both Arabic-speaking and Western countries. The separate school model for children with special needs has persisted in Qatar, with little evidence of inclusion.

Inclusion Project Description

In 2001, the Special Needs Committee of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs set up a task force to begin planning for including children with physical disabilities in the MOE schools (Yossef, 2002). The lack of barrier-free schools was a hindrance to inclusion, but accessible schools were under construction in 2001 that eliminated the physical impediments to inclusion.

Two principals agreed to participate in this inclusion project. Twenty-seven children (13 boys and 14 girls) from the hospital school, whose IQ scores were average and who kept up with the MOE curriculum, were chosen for inclusion. Service personnel were recruited from Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan. Each school had a team consisting of a speech therapist, a physiotherapist, and a psychologist, plus a group of inclusion teachers selected from volunteer teachers in the MOE system.

The inclusion teachers were given workshops to prepare them to be special education support teachers for the children with physical disabilities. All teachers at both schools attended workshops before the program started (Yossef, 2002). The special needs committee tried to prepare both groups of children for inclusion ahead of time. Each child was introduced and given presents at an assembly on the first day of the program.

This project was descriptive, and children were interviewed individually to provide opportunities for interaction and to ensure they understood the questions. The questions were designed to help gain an understanding of the children's ideas about inclusion. Would the children with special needs be able to identify their own strengths after being in a segregated setting for several years? The researchers also chose questions to give the developers feedback for improving the model. The interview questions are listed below:

1. What were your thoughts about the project when you first heard about it?

2.How did you feel when the project actually started?

3. What are the similarities between you and the other children?

4. What are the problems encountered by the children with special needs? (general education children only)

5. How are you treated by the children and teachers at the school? (special education children only)

Fifty-four children between the ages of 8 and 10 were interviewed for this study. Twenty-seven children with special needs (13 male, 14 female) and 27 general education children (13 male, 14 female) were interviewed. All of the inclusion children were interviewed, and a random sample of the general education children at both schools was selected by the school social workers. The children with special needs had cerebral palsy, spina bifida, closed head injury, hydrocephalus, or muscular dystrophy, and all were verbal. About half of them used wheelchairs or walkers; the rest were ambulatory, but some walked unsteadily.

The interviews were conducted in the spring and early fall of 2004. By then, the inclusion model had been in place for six months at the boys' school and three months at the girls' school. Interviews were conducted in Arabic and translated into English by the first author. Responses were written down, coded for similarities, and grouped together. Frequency data were obtained from the groupings and converted to percentages. Data were combined for both schools, due to similar responses. At least one-third of the children had to give a similar response for reporting purposes.

Children's Viewpoints of Inclusion

First, the children were asked what they thought when they first heard about the inclusion project. Faisal, a 9year-old Qatari, wondered what "children with special needs" meant when he was told about new boys coming to his school who had special needs. "Are they like us or different.)," he asked. "If they are different, in what way are they different?" He asked his teachers and parents to explain the term to him. Faisal thought they might be intelligent and strong. The general education children thought the new children would be clever and show strength and kindness (37.3 percent of the responses), and they would attempt to offer help (33.3 percent of the responses). Some of their ideas for making friends were having them participate in games and in the morning queue (18.5 percent of the responses). Fatima, a 10-year-old Qatari, wondered, "Will they be beautiful? Will they have frightening shapes?" She said, "Maybe they will feel sad when they see the other children can walk and move." She felt that "We will give the hope for those children in life for doing everything like other typical children."

The children with special needs also showed positive feelings and attitudes before coming to the school (55.5 percent of the responses). They were excited to be going to a new school (37 percent of the responses). They mentioned having more children to play with (29.6 percent), but, at the same time, some had mixed feelings about the change (22.2 percent of the responses).

Second, both groups of children were asked how they felt when the children with special needs first came to school. Over half of the general education children (55.5 percent) felt happy when they first saw the children with special needs. Many said that making friends and getting them involved in school activities was important (40.7 percent of the responses). Faisal said he was still deciding if he wanted to be friends with them. He said, "I don't imagine being like them one day."

The findings showed that 65.4 percent of the children with special needs felt happy about coming to a regular school for the following reasons: the ability to make new friends (48.1 percent), a feeling of comfort and security because they moved to a regular school (40.7 percent), and the assistance offered to them (40.7 percent). Hassan, a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy, said he was happy about going to the new school because there would be many children to play with and "all will be boys." Hassan said the new school was "so big and beautiful," and he felt "at home" because all the teachers were smiling at him. A small group of children with special needs (22.2 percent) expressed discomfort and sadness because of the differences in appearance between them and the other children.

The third question concerned how the two groups of children saw themselves in comparison to each other. The responses revealed that both groups saw more similarities than differences. The general education children noted similarities in body (48.1 percent) and in schoolbooks and bags (40.7 percent). None of the differences noted by the general education children rose to the one-third mark. Faisal said, "They are different, not like the other children in the school," but "we can see 'the bright blossoms' within them."

The children with special needs also noted similarities in body (88.8 percent), clothes (66.6 percent), and the ability to speak, sit, and learn (62.9 percent). Aisha, a 10-year-old in a wheelchair, said, "There is no difference between us and the normal children." Hassan felt different because he could not play sports like the others. Some felt different because they get higher academic grades, and because they are taller and older (51.8 percent). (Note: The children had been placed in grades according to their curriculum mastery and not their ages.) Eleven children (40.7 percent) could find no similarities because "we are disabled children and cannot play like normal children." They were unable to state any similarities between them and the other children, even when encouraged. They just looked down at their bodies with sad faces instead of saying anything. Hassan said he "hates" some of the boys because they laugh at him and talk about his disabilities; after seven months at his new school, however, he was positive and said, "This is a new life for us."

Fourth, the general education children were asked about the problems they thought the children with special needs faced in the school. Over half of them (55.5 percent) mentioned harassment of the children with special needs. Specific examples given were: other children pushing their wheelchairs in inappropriate ways and making fun of them (29.6 percent) and damaging their equipment (25.9 percent). Faisal said the children face a lot of problems in the school, such as other children's aggressive behavior toward them: pushing them, laughing and cursing about them, stealing their things, taking their money, lying to them, and trying to attack them.

Finally, the children with special needs were asked how they were treated by the other children and by the teachers. A large majority said that both the children (85.2 percent and the teachers (74.07 percent) treated them very well. The children offered them help with studying (70.3 percent), played with them (59.2 percent), helped them to move inside the school (48.1 percent), and pushed their wheelchairs appropriately and carried their bags and equipment (37 percent). The children with special needs were not directly asked about problems they faced. Only 18.5 percent mentioned that sometimes they were not treated well, or that the typically developing children were annoying (14.8 percent). This incongruence between the two groups may be due to the way the questions were asked. The teachers offered assistance for learning (62.9 percent); they also enabled them to take part in activities, helped them inside and outside the school (48.1 percent), and treated them in a "lovely" way and gave them gifts (37 percent). (Gift giving is an accepted cultural practice.)

Interpretation of Children's Responses

Early indicators about the effectiveness of the inclusion program from both groups of children are optimistic. The majority of the children did not talk directly about the subject of disability; instead, they saw each other as children first. This finding may indicate an attitude of acceptance towards children with special needs on the part of young general education children (Al Attiyah et al., 2005; Jawad, Abu Khalid, & Al Saqaa, 2003). Some of the negative comments may stem from a lack of exposure to children with disabilities (Pivik, McComas, & Laflamme, 2002). Wehbi (2006) found that students showed negative attitudes and some aggressive behavior towards children with special needs. These are significant challenges to effective inclusion. It is important to build positive attitudes towards children with special needs and to promote their right to inclusion (Praisner, 2003). Children are less negative toward differences than adults; therefore, it is important that they have experience with all types of differences from an early age (Lazarus & Al Attiyah, 2005).

Environmental and physical barriers, such as those identified by Pivik, McComas, and Laflamme (2002), affected this inclusion project. The new schools were technically barrier-free, but children with walkers and wheelchairs had a great distance to navigate because the elevators were located at the opposite end of the buildings from the classrooms. Bathrooms did not have private changing areas for the children who needed toileting assistance. Families had to provide care for their child's physical needs. If the child could not ride the regular school bus because of a disability, the family had to provide transportation. Such issues should be addressed prior to beginning an inclusion program for children with physical limitations.

Principals are more hesitant to include children with mental retardation than children with a physical disability (A1 Attiyah, A1 Abed, A1 Balsha, A1 Haddad, & Lazarus, 2004; Praisner, 2003). The program organizers decided not to include children with cognitive limitations. The general education teachers were not trained to make accommodations, and alternate curriculum tracks for students who cannot pass government exams do not exist. The children with special needs had been taking the standard MOE exams at the hospital school, but accommodations, such as having extra teachers to read test items and write responses for these students, were provided. In order for children with significant intellectual disabilities to be successful in general education classrooms, teachers must modify their curriculum and assessments. If the government does not allow teachers to deviate from the standard curriculum, it is highly unlikely that these children will succeed in general education.

The amount of harassment the children with special needs faced at the schools, both boys and girls, was disheartening. Aggression at school is an area that should be addressed by administration, teaching staff, and families. Ongoing staff development could help teachers and administrators combat these issues of bullying. Faisal felt that the children at his school should be given very clear instructions not to hit the children with special needs and instead should be encouraged to "help them if they want, especially to walk, to write, to read; and to put nice things in their wheelchair, help them if they are upset, and to celebrate them."

Education reforms in Qatar had an unanticipated effect on the project (Supreme Council for Education, 2006). In February 2004, the girls' inclusion school was designated one of the new independent schools, thereby disrupting implementation of the inclusion model. Another MOE model school had to be located, as the new principal did not support the inclusion model. In general, the attitude of the principal is a well-known factor in the success of inclusion (Praisner, 2003). Many parents decided to move their girls to the new school, and the inclusion teachers and some related services staff also decided to leave at the end of the year, due to the change in school administration.

Overall, the project had good goals and led to the appointment of a committee to develop a full inclusion strategy for the Ministry of Education and the Supreme Family Council (A1 Attiyah et al., 2005). Attention to the issues described in the conclusions will help lead to well-organized and responsible inclusion programs. The future should bring "hope in the life" to many more children with disabilities in Qatar.

Conclusions and Implications

Recommendations for other countries developing inclusive educational programs are:

* Establish counseling programs to prepare all stakeholders before including children with special needs as a way to avoid the negative attitudes, and to form partnerships with all.

* Provide suitable opportunities for interaction between children with special needs and other children in different situations to develop relations between them, so they can develop a clear picture about each other, with indirect guidance.

* Join other groups working on inclusion and build networks to assist each other in program development and evaluation through collaborations, such as the International Inclusive Research Lab at Inclusive Schools for All (www.inclusiveschoolsforall.org).

* Establish support groups for children with special needs to help them develop self-esteem.

* Provide suitable opportunities for all in society robe a part of the project to support it with their diverse talents. It is especially important for families to feel a part of the project.

* Prepare and implement counseling programs for children with special needs and typically developing children when needed, and allow children a chance to express their ideas and feelings.

* Implement development programs at the school to assist children with special needs with their academic, social, and communication skills, before and during inclusion.

* Eliminate environmental barriers prior to implementation as much as possible and have a plan to solve additional barriers that arise after the children arrive at the school.

* Plan for accommodations and modifications to curricula and assessments that are flexible to fit the abilities of all children with special needs.

* Establish a clear acceptance standard for the children with special needs to be included into general education schools, especially for children with cognitive limitations, by using partnerships with members of society.

References

Al Attiyah, A., Al Abed, A., Al Balsha, A., Al Haddad, & Lazarus, B. (2004). Exploration study of the inclusion project in the general education schools in the State of Qatar. Final project report. Doha, Qatar: Ministry of Education and Supreme Council for Family Affairs.

Al Attiyah, A., Al Abed, A., AlBalsha, A., AlHaddad, N., Lazarus, B., Meftah, H., AlHajiri, & Suwaidi, A. (2005). An inclusion strategy for children with special needs in the State of Qatar. Doha, Qatar: Ministry of Education and Supreme Council for Family Affairs.

Al Boineen, A. (2003). The Qatar experience of integrating Al Noor Institute students into general education. Paper presented at the Regional Conference for Inclusion Education for the Blind. Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 16-18, 2003.

Al Said, M. (2002). The State of Qatar's experience in the special needs field. Doha, Qatar: Special Needs Committee, Supreme Council for Family Affairs.

International Inclusive Education Lab. Denver, CO. Retrieved July 7, 2006, from www.inclusiveschoolsforall.org.

Jawad, A., Abu Khalid, A., & A1 Saqaa, S. (2003). The impact of integrating wheelchair users on normal children's attitudes towards physical education: An exploration study. Arab Childhood Journal, 17(5), 27-47.

Lazarus, B., & A1 Attiyah, A. (2005, April). Children, families, and teachers: Viewpoints of inclusion in the State of Qatar. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the Council for Exceptional Children, Baltimore, MD.

Pivik, J., McComas, J., & Laflamme, M. (2002). Barriers and facilitators to inclusive education. Exceptional Children, 9(1), 97-107. Praisner, C. (2003). Attitudes of elementary school principals toward the inclusion of students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 69(2), 135-145

Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2006). Retrieved June 15, 2006, from www.mofa.gov.qa.

Supreme Council for Education, Doha, Qatar. Retrieved June 15, 2006, from www.english.education.gov.qa. Wehbi, S. (2006). The challenges of inclusive education in Lebanon. Disability and Society, 1(4), 331-343.

Yossef, A. (2002). Inclusion: Students with special needs in general education. A report of the Social Education Unit, Ministry of Education. Doha, Qatar: Ministry of Education.

Asma AI Attiyah is Assistant Professor, Special Education Diploma Program, Psychological Science Department, College of Education, Qatar University, Doha, Qatar. Brenda Lazarus is Director, Research, Training and Development, Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs, Doha, Qatar.
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Author:Al Attiyah Asma; Lazarus, Brenda
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Aug 15, 2007
Words:3358
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