Dalal al-Taji (left), current head of the Continuing Education Department of the University College of Ability Development at PRCS, as a child in the late 1980's. (Photo: Jean Calder)
Ramallah, December 22, 2016—“I cannot read regular books, not even with the help of a magnifier,” said Yaser Rajoub, 17, who is in the literature track at his high school near the West Bank city of Hebron. Due to a pigmentation issue in his retinas, Yaser is visually impaired. He needs modifications, like large print textbooks, to access his education. So far, his school, Abu Sharar Boy’s Secondary, is not complying.
“I have midterm exams very soon, but I still do not have the necessary textbooks with larger fonts,” Yaser told Defense for Children International - Palestine, adding that he’s made repeated requests.
By his own estimation, Yaser is a good student, strong in French and a talented singer.
Even so, succeeding at school without supports has been laborious. “Although I sit in the first row, I do not see very well, and I feel I am behind when it comes to Arabic and English classes,” said Yaser.
During tests, Yasser said his teachers do not allow him extra time to read the questions. Instead, they treat Yaser “like everyone else,” thus denying him an equitable education.
After many years of trying to access his education without supports, Yaser is worried about his future. The upcoming ‘tawjihi,’ the final matriculation exam for West Bank students, is weighing particularly heavily on him. Without the textbooks he needs, Yaser is unsure of whether he will pass.
“I hear students talking about travel and education opportunities, but I feel I have limited options and that makes me sad,” said Yaser. “My dream is to succeed and study abroad.”
According to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics’ (PCBS) last disability survey in 2011, 2.4 percent of Palestinians were visually impaired. Roughly half a percent of the total population had a high degree of visual impairment or complete loss of sight.
The same survey found that more than a third of all Palestinians with disabilities aged 15 and older had never attended any school. Of the group that did attend school, 22.2 percent dropped out because it was inaccessible to them. Together, these conditions have produced an illiteracy rate of 53.1 percent among Palestinians with disabilities.
Of children with a visual impairment who were enrolled in schools in that year, 18.2 percent were in need of vision aids and 13.7 percent needed a school aide. Another 10.1 percent required a guidance cane to help them safely move around the school. A full quarter of this group needed adaptations to school buildings.
Dalal al-Taji, head of the Continuing Education Department of the University College of Ability Development at Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), spoke to DCIP about the core obstacles facing school pupils with disabilities. Physical accomodations to buildings and classrooms were high on her list.
Dalal al-Taji teaching students 'Braille' at the University College of Ability Development, as part of a PRCS bachelor's program in Special Ed and Rehabilitation, Khan Younis, Gaza. (Photo: Jean Calder).
Al-Taji, herself, was born legally blind. In 1995 she became the first blind student to enroll at al-Azhar University in Gaza, gaining a degree in English Literature
She affirmed that Palestinian children with disabilities are confronting enormous physical barriers. In her view, specialized equipment and educational materials for children with reduced vision are in short supply.
“The government needs to ensure that it supports an inclusion policy,” said al-Taji. “There needs to be specific planning and monitoring to ensure quality implementation of the policy, required standards in the construction of schools to ensure physical accessibility, and opportunities for teachers to attend trainings to understand disability and learn methods of instruction best suited to meet the needs of children with disabilities.”
Teacher training was also vastly insufficient, as al-Taji explained, “The lack of understanding and knowledge by teachers and heads of schools about disability and the abilities and needs of children with disabilities, leads to a lack of acceptance of the child.”
One 13-year-old child, “Hani,” whom DCIP interviewed, illustrates the negative impact inadequate teacher training can have on a child with disabilities. Hani, whose name has been altered at his families’ request, has multiple disabilities, impacting his health, vision and behavior. His grandfather told DCIP that Hani’s former teacher habitually sent him out to the yard to play, denying him the opportunity to learn.
At the time of his interview, Hani was not attending any school.
On April 2, 2014, the Palestinian Authority (PA) ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD), recognizing the right of persons with disabilities to equal opportunity within an inclusive education system. Article 7 of the Convention recognizes the right of children with disabilities to enjoy the rights guaranteed to them by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on an equal basis with other children, Article 26 of which guarantees the right to education.