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'This is discrimination': Disabled children are 'being robbed of an education' in Lebanon Open in fullscreen

Florence Massena

'This is discrimination': Disabled children are 'being robbed of an education' in Lebanon

Disabled children should be given the same education rights as other children, say organisations [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 May, 2018

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Feature: A report by HRW has found that Lebanon’s public education system is discriminating against children with disabilities who are often denied admission to schools, writes Florence Massena.
"We are always scared of tomorrow because the school could say we need to remove him," said Huda, the mother of Wael, a 10-year-old boy with autism in Beirut.

Huda's concerns come as a recent report by international organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that children with disabilities are constantly marginalised and put aside when it comes to accessing education in Lebanon.

On paper, people with disabilities have access to education, health, employment, an accessible environment and an inclusive society, according to the law 220 adopted in 2000 by the Lebanese parliament to ensure their rights.

Children with disabilities should therefore be able to go to school for free and without any discrimination, as their peers, but the reality is very different, according to HRW's report entitled "I Would Like to Go to School": Barriers to Education for Children with Disabilities in Lebanon.  

When Huda tried to enrol her son Wael, she went to many schools in the Beirut area. But one after another they turned her away, she said, with explanations that included: "We don't take handicap" [sic] and "We cannot accept your son, because the other parents might not approve."

Imad, a four-year-old who has a hearing disability, was also denied admission to a school by local school administrators in Hermel, a district in northeastern Lebanon, because he uses a hearing aid.

His only educational options are either to enrol at a residential institution in Beirut, about 150 kilometres away, or to make daily trips to a school in the nearest large town, Baalbek, amounting to a 10-hour school day at a cost of $100 per month.

Both options were out of the question for Imad’s mother. "I have three other children to take care of," she explained. With no alternative, Imad will stay out of school for the foreseeable future.

We found that schools in Lebanon routinely deny admission to children with disabilities, in violation of Lebanese and international law

The educational path for children with disabilities in Lebanon is strewn with logistical, social, and economic pitfalls which means that they often face a compromised school experience, if they can even enrol at all, HRW said.  

"Discriminatory admission practices are robbing Lebanese children with disabilities of an education," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Without any real option to get a quality inclusive education, thousands of children with disabilities are being left behind."

There is no clear data on the total number of children with disabilities in Lebanon or on how many children with disabilities are in school, HRW said, but according to Rights and Access, the government agency charged with registering persons with disabilities, there are currently 8,558 children registered with a disability aged between 5 and 14 (the age of compulsory education in Lebanon). Of these, 3,806 are in government-funded institutions, with some others spread among public and private schools.

 
The educational path of children with disabilities in Lebanon is
strewn with logistical, social and economic pitfalls  
[© 2017 Amanda Bailly for Human Rights Watch]

But many of those registered do not attend any type of educational facility. Furthermore, these figures are low, given that the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Bank estimate that at least five percent of children below the age of 14 have a disability.

Based on this statistic, a conservative estimate is that at least 45,000 children ages 5 to 14 in Lebanon have a disability. This discrepancy raises concerns that tens of thousands of Lebanese children with disabilities are not registered as such and many of these may not have access to education.

"We found that schools in Lebanon routinely deny admission to children with disabilities, in violation of Lebanese and international law," Bassam Khawaja, HRW Lebanon researcher, told The New Arab

"And even when children with disabilities gain admission, schools don't take basic steps to ensure they get a quality education. Children with disabilities are often funnelled to segregated institutions which aren't even mandated to provide an education. Others just stay at home," Khawaja added. 

"We found that while educators and ministry officials in Lebanon are receptive to begin including children with disabilities in mainstream schools, there is a real resistance to including children with intellectual disabilities. This is discrimination."

To "alleviate" the issue, the ministry of social affairs supports some schools specialised in disabilities, whether mental or physical, but do not offer any legal degree or labour aptitude certificate.

HRW staff visited some of these institutions and interviewed children, family members and staff as well as disability rights experts. Their conclusion is firm, as Khawaja explained to The New Arab: "We found that they are largely placed to warehouse children. Children with disabilities should be able to attend school alongside their peers, not separated from society. Inclusive education benefits all children, not just children with disabilities, because it caters to all types of learning."

For HRW, it also involves a financial problem: "The current situation doesn't even make financial sense. The social affairs ministry is currently paying about $8,000 to place each child in an institution where they don't get an education, whereas one local organisation is supporting children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools and get a quality education for just $4,000 per year, half of what Lebanon is already paying. 

"This is not a debate over whether education in these institutions is "good enough," they are just not mandated to provide an education, and the education taking place there is not subject to oversight or regulation," Khawaja said. 

The ministry of education, whom The New Arab was unsuccessful at reaching for this article, has recently taken steps to include children with disabilities in 30 schools, which are baby steps compared to 18 years of discrimination.

Children with disabilities are often funnelled to segregated institutions which aren't even mandated to provide an education. Others just stay at home

However, to Dr Moussa Charafeddine, president of the Friends of the Disabled Association (FDA), this HRW report seemed "harsh."

The organisation was founded 40 years ago by a group of parents who had children with mental disabilities to cover the gap of services towards them. Dr Moussa Charafeddine is himself a parent to two "gentlemen" with mental disabilities and physical paralysis.

"The report blames all parties, the government as well as the organisations like us," Dr Charafeddine told The New Arab.

"It's not very exact because a lot of these associations provide good quality services and education and we are doing much better than other Arabic countries," he added.

"Of course the government is not doing enough, but it doesn't mean people are not doing what they can to help, the level is not disastrous. We should blame the government for not giving enough resources."

Since 2000, there has been some progress made by the state, Dr Charafeddine said, such as covering between 65-85 percent of hospital fees, paying for special equipment, scholarships to private centres and forcing a three percent employment quota in companies.

"But all of it is not very applicable, and the families do not have enough financial help. We need a more inclusive society."

Another pressing issue for these private centres is the annual funding by the government which has not changed since 2011, although prices have risen since then.

"The difference is from $300 to $800, to give you an example," Dr Charafeddine said.

"With 102 organisations, we are lobbying for a raise of this funding as we might all have to shut down, we can barely pay our employees anymore."

One of these private centres, Mosan in the south of Lebanon, is held by Moussa Charafeddine's brother Ali. He receives around 175 children with mental disabilities from the ages of 5 to 16 years old every year – 113 of them have their costs covered by the ministry of social affairs and the others pay $4,000 a year.

They offer three levels of life lessons to the children, depending on their possibilities: the first includes basics of everyday life, like eating and cleaning by themselves, the second is for languages, maths and sciences, and the third is for vocational training. This is developed according to what the parents do in life, for example baking, housekeeping, carpentry, tailoring or gardening, for the children to be able to help in the family business.

Ali Charafeddine thinks these centres allow parents to breathe a bit: "We try to make children with disabilities as independent as they can, by learning skills to do things on their own like getting dressed, walking in the streets, going to the bathroom, so the family doesn't have to take care of them a 100 percent," he told The New Arab.

By taking specific steps to protect the rights of children with disabilities and ensuring they have equal access to quality education in inclusive schools, the Lebanese government and its international partners could radically enhance the quality of life for many children with disabilities in Lebanon

The centre also provides speech therapy, physiotherapy, and social workers who coordinate between the families, staff and children.

But these centres are not replacements for schools and many are pushing for inclusiveness instead of segregation.

"The education ministry should implement a policy of inclusive education, the social affairs ministry should adopt a time-bound de-institutionalisation plan, and international donors should ensure that money going to the country's education system as part of the response to Lebanon's refugee crisis is supporting inclusive education," HRW's Khawaja said. 

The obstacles that children with disabilities face are not unique to Lebanon. Approximately 90 percent of children with disabilities in low income and lower-middle income countries do not go to school. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimates that children with disabilities represent more than one-third of the 121 million children at the primary and lower secondary level who are out of school worldwide.

By taking specific steps to protect the rights of children with disabilities and ensuring they have equal access to quality education in inclusive schools, the Lebanese government and its international partners could radically enhance the quality of life for many children with disabilities in Lebanon, HRW said. 

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon, where she reports on the region with a focus on the environment, women's issues, refugees and humanitarian initiatives.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena

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