Into the Mainstream

After decades of virtually no access to education, children with special needs are getting a shot at the regular school system
By Passa nt Rabie
September 2009
on the vast compound belonging to the Ministry of Education (MOE), beyond the garden and the massive, white villa, there lies a decrepit building on the margins of the property. On its fourth floor, in a small section behind a nondescript door, is the Department of Special Education, isolated and until now, mostly ignored.

Eight-year-old Abdel Rahman walks in, grasping his mother’s hand for guidance. Born with a defect of the optic nerve, the young boy has suffered from poor vision all his life. He missed a year of school as it became increasingly difficult for him to see what was written on the blackboard. Today, his mother has come to request her son be transferred from public school to a specialized school for students with visual impairments.

It seems like a straightforward request, but MOE officials insist the boy stay in the public school — an ambitious new plan, they say, is already in progress to accommodate special needs students like Abdel Rahman within the regular school system, giving them access to education while accommodating their disabilities.
Abdel Rahman’s mother remains doubtful, saying teachers constantly badger her about the disruption her son creates in class.

As it stands, children with special needs have had practically no access to mainstream schooling. Now, as the MOE moves to open classroom doors for them, families are faced with a new dilemma: will their children be better off integrated into public and private schools, or should they remain in special schools for the disabled?

Aiming for Integration

More than 7 million Egyptians have some form of congenital disability, be it physical or intellectual. Currently, educational facilities capable of catering to people with special needs can only serve about 10 percent of the total disabled population, according to MOE statistics. The early education years are perhaps the most critical, for this is when children are socialized and start learning the skills necessary for a productive life.

As of 2006, there were nearly 2 million school-aged children with special needs. The MOE estimates that currently only 1.8 percent — just 36,000 of them — are receiving any sort of an education, with some enrolled in mainstream schools and others in schools specialized in teaching children with disabilities. Until April 2009, there was no general policy for integrating special needs students. The MOE assessed each case individually, with only a select few private
schools and even fewer public schools accepting the students. The number accepted is so small that officials say there are no ministry statistics on them.

“Prior to the [April 2009] ministerial decision, there was integration of some [children with] minor disabilities, such as hearing or vision impairments,” says Naguib Khozam, director of the National Center for Examinations and Educational Evaluation (NCEEE), and head of the MOE’s committee in charge of mainstreaming special needs children. “We want to increase the number and diversify the types of special needs that are being accepted.”

To do that, the MOE is phasing in its Damg Al-Atfal Zoa Al-Ahtiyagat Al-Khasa (Inclusion of Special Needs Children) project — a plan to integrate students with special needs into the regular school system, including state-run and private schools. The goal is to enrol almost 10 percent of special needs students, some 152,800 children, into the regular school system by 2012.

“Inclusion is already being carried out in most countries around the world, advocating that children with special needs have a right to an education too,” says Khozam. He points to studies that suggest including a child with special needs in a mainstream school helps them function better in mainstream society.

To reach its 2012 goal, the ministry must equip 5,040 out of some 40,000 schools with the resources and infrastructure to accommodate students with varying disabilities.

Special Education Often Comes with a High Price Tag.

Outfitting a school to accommodate those pupils is perhaps the simplest task. Among other things, visually impaired students need access to audio equipment such as book readers and voice recorders for taking notes, while the hearing impaired benefit from signs and special lighting systems. For those with mobility issues, buildings need to be renovated to include ramps, elevators and doors wide enough for wheelchairs.

For cognitive or learning disabilities, which include Down syndrome, autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the ministry will focus on developing teaching techniques and classroom environments that are more supportive of the student. (See box on page 95 for more information about learning disabilities.)

The plan will be phased in gradually at schools across the country. Khozam says the ministry has selected 500 schools, a mixture of private and public institutions, to pilot the project for the 2009/10 academic year.

“The schools are being prepared to accept children with special needs,” says Khozam, noting the ministry has already trained 728 teachers, and begun school renovations in preparation for the official start of classes, after Eid Al-Fitr. “The main issue lies within modifying the teaching experience at schools, so that children of all types can learn and understand together,”

Before you can educate a special needs child, you must educate the teachers and staff. On August 6, a little more than a month before the start of the academic year, the MOE held the first of a number of seminars on working with disabled students. The plan is to train 29,280 teachers and 981 psychologists and
behaviorists by 2011 to help the students develop social skills. The ministry will also hire 1,526 support teachers to give students individual attention.

Public Misconceptions About Disabilities Hamper Attempts to Mainstream Special Needs Students.


The current curriculum will be slightly modified so that students with varying memorization or critical thinking skills can adapt and be given an equal chance of excelling at the academic material. The new curriculum will be taught to all students, giving regular students exposure to new learning experiences.

Schools involved in the program are required to allow children with special needs to access all the social, health and psychological services normally offered. In addition, the school is required to offer students extracurricular activities to help pupils develop their physical and mental skills.

Even after training and renovation, schools will not be able to accept all children with disabilities that come to their doors. A prospective special needs student will undergo an evaluation exam prior to admission. To be eligible for a regular school, a student must not have a dual disability, such as visual and hearing impairments or a combined mental and physical disability. His or her Stanford IQ must be higher than 52 points, and his or her hearing impairment
may not exceed the diagnosis of moderately severe hearing loss. Under the MOE plan, each classroom will have no more than four special needs students.

The evaluation exam is administered by a committee, comprising of a representative from the MOE’s Special Education Department, a behavior therapist and a teacher with training in special education to assess the specific educational needs of each student.

Khozam says that though it has only recently been publicized, this is a carefully calculated plan that will not be carried out haphazardly. “We’ve been conducting studies for more than 10 years, and they have all yielded positive results,” he notes.

Education Experts are Divided Over the Issue of Integrating Special Needs Children into Mainstream Schools.

He says that despite initial difficulties with learning how to properly teach a child with special needs, the schools selected for these previous studies did in fact modify the learning experience for all students.
Special Schools Go Beyond Special Needs

Nationwide, there are 803 schools specifically for children with disabilities: 468 dedicated to learning disabilities, 232 for hearing impairments, 88 schools for blind or low-vision students and five schools for children with severe health issues. The rest accept all types of disabilities. Most of these schools
are privately owned or belong to some non-governmental organization dedicated to children with special needs.

For students with mild disabilities whose families can afford private tuition, “There is definitely no shortage of [suitable] schools [] in Egypt,” says Sania Khattab, founder and chairman of Dream Ideal Education School, an Egyptian-Canadian boarding school for children with special needs and learning disabilities, located in Dreamland city, near Sixth of October City.

She does admit, however, that educating a child with special needs costs a lot of money and is therefore not a viable option for poor families. Khattab adds that a school for special needs students requires highly paid teachers, smaller class sizes and specialists such as psychologists and physiotherapists. “If you want to establish something unique, then you have to have the right budget to cover it,” she says.

Khattab has been involved in special education for more than 30 years. After earning her PhD in special education in London, she taught at schools for children with special needs in the United States and Canada. When she moved to Kuwait, she established a school for special needs students there.

“I felt that this is a field I want to work in, these are the type of people I want to work with, and I found that they are just like anyone else,” says Khattab. “Not everyone sees the beauty within people with special needs but I treat them as though they were my own children.”

Based on the Canadian curriculum, Dream Ideal first opened in 2003. The school accepts children from the age of three, evaluating each applicant to create a customized educational plan. In addition to the regular academic subjects of math, science and language, Dream Ideal also offers a life skills program that teaches students social skills, independent living, personal hygiene and promotes their self-esteem. It teaches practical and vocational skills such
as weaving, food preparation and art while offering an introduction to office work.

“You have to see what their talent is and work on developing it,” says Khattab, “so they don’t stay until the age of 40 holding a pen and paper, sitting in a classroom.”

Despite founding a specialized school for children with special needs, Khattab believes in integrating local schools — but not yet. “I am for inclusion, but we are not ready to have children with special needs in regular classrooms,” she says.

Khattab recalls that when she was living in Canada and her son’s classroom received a child with special needs, there were rigorous preparations that preceded the integration. The school informed each student that a classmate with special needs would be joining them, explaining the new student’s condition and
how to interact with him, when to assist him and when to let him depend on himself.

“I can’t just say, ‘Okay I’m going to integrate this amount of children with special needs into those classrooms’,” says Khattab. “We need to do a lot of things.” You first need to train the entire staff, from the janitors to the headmaster, prepare the students and their parents, and decide on the appropriate subjects the child should take after evaluating him individually, she says.

On a larger scale, she notes, you need to increase awareness in society as a whole about children with special needs.

Another supporter of integrating special needs students is Dina Abdel Wahab, managing director of The Egyptian Child Care Corporation and founder of the Baby Academy, a fully integrated preschool that does not differentiate between children with special needs and their peers.

Abdel Wahab has a son Ali, a special needs child who inspired her to establish the Baby Academy in 2000. The school now has a branches in Maadi and Heliopolis.

“The whole idea was that my son at that time was preschool age, and I was looking for a place that would help him develop his full potential,” says Abdel Wahab. She was certain that Ali, diagnosed with Down syndrome, was capable of going to a regular school. However, she wanted him to be integrated with other children from an early age so that he could better adjust to a mainstream school.

During the Baby Academy’s first year, there were around 80–90 regular students and only three students with special needs, two of whom went on to enroll in mainstream schools. The preschool now has around 80 special needs children. When the Baby Academy first opened, there were only two mainstream schools that would accept children with special needs; today, some 10 schools have opened their doors to special needs students.

“The first year there was a learning curve for everyone,” says Abdel Wahab, noting that the teachers were still testing out methods for working with a special needs child. There was also resistance from the parents of the other students, who were concerned that the presence of a special needs child would hinder their children’s education. Abdel Wahab says that parents have since become more accepting.

Pointing to the success of her own project, Abdel Wahab is an advocate of mainstreaming. She believes that any school administration that is committed to providing an equal opportunity for students with special needs can create an accepting and supportive environment for the child.

“It’s very easy, so long as they do more than just fulfill a statistic for the school,” says Abdel Wahab. The disabled child will need speech therapy, physical therapy and a bit more special attention when a certain concept is hard to understand. “They will continue to need support, that’s why they’re called special needs [] you have to provide for those needs in order for them to progress.”

Although she’s more skeptical about integrating special needs learners into public schools, Abdel Wahab still believes that it can one day be successfully achieved if properly executed. “I don’t think Egypt is at the stage where it can start sending children with special needs into all schools, in a way that’s fair for both children with special needs and other children.”

In describing the process for successfully mainstreaming special needs students, the Baby Academy founder sounds like she is reading from the MOE plan. She says pilot projects should be tested out in selected schools to promote the idea to the community as well as provide training for teachers on skill development, individualizing teaching techniques. The curriculum, she adds, must be modified so that the teaching experience improves not only for those
with special needs, but for all the students.

“The most rewarding thing is to look at a child with special needs who learns how to do something that he wasn’t able to do before,” says Abdel Wahab. “I feel if teachers at public schools share that feeling, then they will create a movement of believers.”

If the mainstreaming program is successful, more children will be provided with the opportunity to reach their potential, like Abdel Wahab’s son, who is now 12 years old and studying at a private mainstream school. Despite challenges at first, such as having to adapt to a different teacher each year, Ali
has been adjusting well to the integrated classroom.

Others have not had a good experience with integration. Hamida Stelzer, a teacher at the Advanced Center for Developing Needs (ACDN) in Maadi, saw firsthand what can go wrong when her brother, Nour, who has Down syndrome, was enrolled in a mainstream school.

Even though the school claimed it was inclusive, Stelzer’s brother, now 17, was put in a separate classroom with other special needs children and not allowed into regular classes. Even in the segregated class, Stelzer claims, Nour did not learn much as the teachers were not qualified and there were signs he was being bullied.

Stelzer, 24, says that one of her ACDN students, who attends an inclusive school three times a week, told her the other students in the mainstream school verbally and physically abuse him. Because he had no positive interactions with other children at the mainstream school, he was not learning social skills; for that reason, Stelzer asserts, his parents keep him at ACDN two days a week.

Stelzer started working at ACDN in March 2009 as a volunteer with no teaching experience. After her colleagues encouraged her to get more involved with the classroom, and have fun with the teaching experience, Stelzer decided to work there full time. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in psychology.

“It requires a lot of patience, which is the main factor — that you have patience and empathy,” she says. She notes that many study special education but end up leaving the school after a month because they cannot handle the job. “My personal experience, having lived with a child with special needs for 17 years, helped me develop a lot of patience, a lot of compassion and love for children with special needs.”

Despite her brother’s experience, Stelzer acknowledges mainstreaming can help a child with special needs realize their potential. She remains skeptical, however, about whether or not it can be properly executed here.

Challenges of Integration

Educational psychologist Hala Abdel Hak, on the other hand, believes that mainstreaming here is long overdue and should happen sooner rather than later.
“You’ll never be ready if you wait, as the number [of disabled children] continues to increase,” says Abdel Hak.

Abdel Hak stresses that mainstreaming is a human rights issue. “Who decided to exclude them?” she asks. Egypt is a diverse country; no one else is being segregated, she asserts, so we should either accept all diversities or none at all.

“Regular schools should cater to all needs,” says Abdel Hak. “[A child with special needs] shouldn’t change to fit into the schools, the schools should change to fit [the child].”

Abdel Hak and other researchers from the Center for Children with Special Needs, a private organization, did a case study of five children with learning disabilities who studied in the public school system. The children were tested before and after joining the regular classrooms.

Presented at the 2000 International Special Education Congress (ISEC), the study showed that after being enrolled in regular schools, the children yielded positive results as their scores improved by 60 percent in the psychological variables and 65 percent in the linguistics variables. It also showed that the special needs children were socially accepted by their non-disabled peers.

On the downside, the study revealed problems in the students’ academic development. Researchers found the students did not fully comprehend the curriculum, citing a lack of teacher support in the classroom. Three out of the five students were accepted and fully integrated by their teachers, with some reaching out for guidance on how to properly educate a special needs child. During an interview with researchers after the study ended, however, one teacher would
not view the student with special needs as a fully functioning member of the class, instead referring to him as an “angel” who sleeps, eats and wets himself.

“It won’t all be perfect, but we cannot wait because these kids are not getting anything now,” says Abdel Hak, who is currently working on a PhD on learning styles and their impact on the literacy skills of children with learning difficulties.

One of the five children in the case study, eight-year-old Hossam, was taken out of the mainstream school and put back into a specialized school. Abdel Hak says the boy’s father later regretted his decision after Hossam showed severe signs of regression. The psychologist recalls visiting the child following
his transfer and seeing the regression firsthand. He showed no signs of stimulation and was rocking back and forth, after he had been fully functioning in a regular school.

Abdel Hak believes that the nation’s special education schools, both public and private, do not fully prepare children. She asserts that these students only learn skills that help them operate within a certain closed environment, but not out in the real world.

“If I’m a child with a disability and I’m always around others who also have disabilities, then I’m not challenged and I don’t have a role model,” says Abdel Hak. In regular schools, she says, a child with special needs interacts with other children and picks up some skills through observation and practice.

Baby Academy’s Abdel Wahab agrees, based on her own experience with an inclusive environment, “Children accept and tolerate, which are all qualities that are killed by society as we grow older.”

Despite widespread criticism that public schools are overcrowded with poorly paid teachers, MOE’s Khozam believes that quality of public education is just fine, and that public schools will actually get even better with the new curriculum developed to accommodate special needs students.

He believes that public schools are more accepting of children with special needs, claiming private schools fear their reputation for high standards will be tarnished if they accept special needs students. Pointing to the ministry studies, Khozam says that he has seen public schools fully adapt to students with special needs by providing support for the child, who in turn fully adapted to the school.

Advocates and skeptics all agree that the public perception of children with special needs in this country is in urgent need of change.

“The stereotypes about people with disabilities not having any potential to function in society is not true, because I see my brother everyday and he does things on his own and is very independent,” says Stelzer. “It just shows that people with disabilities should not be marginalized, they can function normally in society.”

“One thing that Egyptians believe about children with special needs is that they can’t,” says Dream Ideal’s Khattab, whose school motto trumpets, ‘Yes I can, give me a chance!’

“How do I know if they’re able to make it or not, just give them a chance,” she says. “Every student with special needs, no matter how severe their case is, can still accomplish something.”

The Ministry of Education is ready to give students with special needs that chance to accomplish something. Now it’s up to the mainstream schools to rise to the challenge and help these special children reach their full potential. et

Learning Disabilities

A learning disability causes the brain to receive, process or communicate information differently. Some of the most common disabilities affecting children are:

Down Syndrome

Down syndrome is caused by the presence of an extra twenty-first chromosome, resulting in a delay in the child’s development, both physically and mentally. Children with Down syndrome are capable of learning, but they do so at a different pace than other children.


Autism hinders the development of the brain and is commonly characterized by lack of social interaction and by repetitive behavior. Children with autism may experience problems making friends, reading body language, communicating and making eye contact.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD)

Although AD/HD does not affect the development of the brain, it is still considered a learning disability as it may interfere with the child’s learning process. Children with AD/HD have trouble sitting still, following instructions, staying focused or organized and completing homework.

Other types of learning disabilities include: dyslexia, difficulty processing language and other types of information; dyscalculia, difficulty processing and manipulating numbers; dysgraphia, difficulty in writing; dyspraxia, difficulty with fine motor skills; auditory processing disorder and visual processing disorder, which affect the ability to differentiate between sounds and interpret visual information.

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