Michael’s dream to study culinary arts hasn’t come true yet, and Lebanon’s myriad of crises are not helping.
Michael, 16, suffers from an intellectual disability. He’s supposed to be in the vocational education phase now, learning how to become a patissier. The academic and functional achievement, however, was first delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, followed by the successive crises that the nation has undergone since October 2019.
The last two years were difficult for Michael and his family. His mother, Sara, whose name was changed for anonymity, believes that her son did not receive appropriate care and assistance.
“The fact that he spent two years at home doing nothing led to the deterioration of his health condition. It affected his mental health; he became easily irritable and increasingly jealous,” she said. “Schools indeed opened their doors again now, but due to the current crisis, we’re unable to send him there every day. Fuel is too expensive, and if he is to take the school bus daily, this will cost us a fortune. As a result, he’s attending school twice a week only, which is creating barriers to improvement.”
Lebanon is dealing with its worst economic and financial collapse in decades, which was exacerbated by COVID-19, the Beirut port explosion, and inadequate policy responses. The tiny Mediterranean country has the third-highest public debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio in the world at 150 percent.
“The stress and trauma of Lebanon’s multiple crises have affected both persons with and without disabilities,” Yukie Mokuo, UNICEF representative in Lebanon, told Al Arabiya English. “The impact is greater on children with disabilities since they are often viewed as ‘less than’ in society, as beings who cannot be effectively and actively present within their communities.”
Mokuo highlighted that children with disabilities in Lebanon had always faced significant barriers to inclusion in society due to the lack of implementation of Law 220/2000. In times of crisis, the gaps grow wider and become even more evident.
“The exclusion is specifically apparent in education,” she pointed out. “Children with disabilities often require an adapted tailored approach to their learning. Though switching to online modalities was extremely challenging to all children, it impacted those with disabilities more due to their additional difficulties to attend remote learning and the ineffectiveness of online rehabilitation sessions, which require face-to-face interactions,” she added, giving the example of a child who suffers from visual impairments.
Similarly, Michael’s mother discussed the challenges that were brought about by online learning, particularly in a country where constant power outages and bad internet connections are common.
“An enormous burden fell on our shoulders while we helped Michael accommodate amid all the difficult circumstances. These efforts, however, did not prevent an inevitable regression in academic performance,” Sara said, noting that children with special needs are treated unfairly in Lebanon, which deepens inequities and exclusion.
Speaking with Michael in the presence of his mother, he told us how much he “appreciates going to school every day and connect with friends.”
“I love to spend time with my friends and cousins. I don’t like it when I am alone at home; I get bored,” he noted. “Sometimes, I watch TV or play video games, but then the power goes out unexpectedly, and I get so mad.”
According to Sara, he doesn’t understand why power cuts happen, and he starts throwing things around him out of frustration.
Last August, Lebanon’s only fully-fledged autism school announced that it would shut down due to the country’s worsening financial meltdown. The 1 2 3 Autism school – which opened in September 2019, one month prior to the October revolution, said that it could no longer resist the downward spiral of the economic slump.
Luckily, however, following the demands of the parents who were worried about the future of their autistic children, the school reopened its doors on September 27, after closing for a short period. The school confirmed in a phone call with Al Arabiya English that they were operational again but no longer accepting new students.
Lack of access to healthcare
“In times of emergency, children with disabilities and their needs are often overlooked, especially when it comes to mobility and access to information, medication, personal care assistance, and healthcare,” Mokuo noted. “These, in addition to assistive devices, can be seen as non-essential by governing bodies or destitute families who need to prioritize spending.”
This is particularly true in Lebanon, where almost 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line, according to a recent report by the UN, which spells out the urgent humanitarian situation facing the country. The deep economic downturn has left many families struggling to survive, with many of them unable to secure bare necessities.
“Attaining basic needs such as food, water, and shelter became a priority over health and education in some cases. For several parents, therapy services and medication are today a second priority, which is resulting in the deteriorating condition of children with special needs’ health and fundamental right of access to services.”
Long-term versus short-term solutions
UNICEF has strongly focused on the provision of specialized education services for children with special needs and their inclusion in formal and non-formal education, in addition to developing policies and procedures around disability inclusion. It also supported the Ministry of Education in setting up 30 inclusive pilot schools. But still, there’s a long way to go.
“In the short term, children with special needs, whether Lebanese or non-Lebanese, should be prioritized in terms of provision of social and cash assistance, as well as transportation to public schools,” Mokuo emphasized. “In the long run,” she added, “there must be a development of an inclusive national social protection framework and advocacy for the implementation of Law 220/2000 to push for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all realms of society.”
The understanding that comes with an inclusive mindset can lead to innovation and positive change. Disability inclusion allows accessibility and participation, contributes to sustainable development, and promotes a resilient society for all.
“I can’t wait to go to the patisserie and help the chef prepare yummy cakes,” Michael said.