Lebanon’s education system is failing students with special needs

Too many still left behind

Photo by Greg Demarque

Students with physical and cognitive disabilities in Lebanon are being put at a disadvantage by a system that, from the get-go, creates barriers—both physical and financial—toward an inclusive education. While there are signs that this could change in the future, current progress is slow, and on a structural level, the educational system in Lebanon continues to exclude and discriminate against special needs students. 

In 2000, Lebanon passed Law 220 that, among other things, guaranteed disabled individuals the right for an education free from discrimination, as well as equal opportunities within private and public educational institutions. Yet, in the near two decades since the law was passed, an implementation decree has not been developed or agreed on by relevant ministries. Human Rights Watch (HRW) carried out research between January and June 2017, in Beirut and its suburbs, Hermel, Akkar, Nabatieh, and Chouf districts, gathering information about the experiences of 105 children and young adults with disabilities, and conducting interviews with six public schools, five private educational centers, 13 Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA)-funded institutions, 30 disability and education rights experts and advocates, and 13 government officials. Based on interviews with disabled children and their families, HRW concluded that, “children with disabilities were excluded from public schools due to discriminatory admission policies, lack of reasonable accommodations, a shortage of sufficiently trained staff, lack of inclusive curricula (including no individualized education programs), and discriminatory fees and expenses that further marginalize children with disabilities from poor families.”

Barriers to education

The first barrier children with disabilities face is direct discrimation, i.e., being denied admission into school as a result of their disability. HRW recorded 200 instances of this during its investigation. One of the cases detailed in the HRW report was that of Wael, a 10-year-old boy with autism who, according to his mother, was denied admission into 10 schools in the Beirut area with reasons given, including, “We don’t take handicap [sic],” and “We cannot accept your son because the other parents might not approve.”

Others were able to enroll their children, only for the school to then ask them to remove them later. Zahraa, a five-year-old girl from Hermel with a cognitive disability attended public school for a month before her mother received a phone call from the school’s principal who, according to the HRW report, informed her that “Zahraa had to leave because, ‘[the teachers] cannot leave all the other children and just take care of her.’”

Due to the lack of data on the overall number of children with disabilities in Lebanon, it is impossible to give a scale to this problem. By the World Bank’s estimate, worldwide at least 5 percent of children aged between one and 14 have a disability; using that metric, HRW estimates that, on the conservative side, there could be around 45,000 disabled children in Lebanon. However, the government agency charged with registering people with disabilities have just 8,558 children on file—perhaps due to the fact that Lebanon does not consider some conditions—such as high-functioning autism, misophonia, and pathological demand avoidance—as disabilities.

The second barrier to inclusive education is financial, both on the side of schools and of parents. To be accessible to children with a wide range of disabilities, schools need to make buildings physically accessible, have teachers trained in special needs education provision, and supply specialized equipment, such as braille books and hearing aids. According to Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at HRW, both public and private schools lack materials, tools, and systems that enable children with disabilities to learn, such as sign language interpreters. In cases where schools do have these materials, they are often provided by an NGO. Given the lack of funding—made worse by this year’s budget—there is a real shortage of trained special needs staff. When HRW carried out its investigation in 2017, it found that in nearly all cases, teachers and school administrators had no training on inclusive education methods or ways to incorporate kids with disabilities into the classroom and make sure they were receiving the needed support.  

On the parents’ side, if they can enroll their children into schools, they are often required to pay extra fees. LWIS Hazmieh is a school focused on inclusivity for students with special educational needs. Shukri Husni, chairperson of LWIS’ education committee, emphasizes to Executive the importance of an integrated approach at his school, where students with and without special needs learn in similar environments with adjustments made to accommodate the former. LWIS includes one special needs student per class, with each class averaging six – 10 students. In addition to regular school fees, students with special educational needs pay an extra of $5,000 – $8,000 per year, depending on the student’s needs. According to Husni, this is cheaper than in comparison to most private schools, which would require these students to pay double the regular school fees. 

A third barrier to a quality education for physically disabled students is the lack of accessibility in these educational institutions. A 2013 UNESCO report concluded that only five public schools in Lebanon met accessibility requirements for those with physical disabilities, such as having a wheelchair accessible entrance, ramps, elevators, disabled parking, and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. 

For students who do manage to enroll in schooling, and whose families can afford the added costs imposed on them, there is an additional barrier to face: the lack of accommodation in the Lebanese national curriculum for special needs students. It is up to the schools themselves to adapt the curriculum to suit specific needs. Even in schools with accommodating internal systems, this results in being forced to teach a curriculum that is unfairly difficult for special needs students. “It is especially difficult for learners with special education needs who follow the Lebanese program to thrive and get an equal opportunity as their peers,” Husni explains. “To move forward, a major shift in the educational system at the national level is needed. If this does not happen, then many learners with special education needs will not make it past 9th grade.”

Integrate, not segregate

One way around these issues is for children with special needs to be sent instead to specialized segregated institutions funded by MoSA, which are designed to serve as educational alternatives. However, these centers came under heavy criticism in the HRW investigation; one disability expert described most of these institutions to HRW as “day care centers—nothing more.”

In the draft budget sent to Parliament, funding cuts will make it hard to prioritize inclusion over segregation. The draft budget called for the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) to cut their funding for equipping primary and secondary schools with technical and other equipment for people with disabilities by $138,000, down 30 percent from 2018. At the time of writing, the budget had been passed by Parliament but was not yet signed by President Aoun, so Executive was not able to confirm if these cuts remained the same. 

Hope for the future?

While the current capacity of schools for special needs students in Lebanon is severely lacking, there are positive signals for the future. The MoEHE ran a pilot program last year, which provided 30 public schools in Lebanon with full-time, specially-trained teachers, and made these schools physically accessible to children with physical disabilities. It also included a mobile teams of paraprofessionals (speech therapist, psychomotor therapist, and psychologist), which was deployed to provide support when necessary.  According to the ministry, one outcome of this project, in particular the awareness sessions they have run at schools, has been the “shift from resistance to inclusion towards acceptance and readiness to support” from staff, students, and parents. Over 100 newly-built schools were built disabled-friendly, with a plan to build 25 – 30 more over the next five years. Another 170 schools (including the 30 in the above project) have been rennovated to include disabled-access. The MoEHE is also working on a new curriculum that  “will take into consideration students with special needs.”

Several universities in Lebanon, meanwhile, have taken the step of including training on inclusivity as part of their courses for soon-to-be educators. Anies al-Hroub, coordinator of the special education program at the American University of Beirut, tells Executive that the university offers a diploma specifically designed to teach its students how to cope with the special education needs and learning disabilities of their future students. The diploma covers all aspects of special education, including behavioral modification, teaching both theory and practice. Hroub also notes that the number of students taking this path has increased recently, which he attributes to a professional demand for special needs educators and growing interest in such courses, even among students not pursuing a degree in education. 

Despite these steps, it is clear that special needs students in Lebanon continue to face social, financial, and physical barriers to education. Changing this is important, as investment into special education leads to positive spillovers, through job creation and increasing the opportunity for children with special needs to reach their full potential as adults. All in all, greater efforts should be made to promote an inclusive education system for all children in Lebanon. 

Charlie Darwich-Houssami

Charlie Darwich-Houssami is an undergraduate economics student at SOAS University, London. He is currently participating in the Executive summer internship program for business journalism.

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