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Economic crisis threatens gains of already struggling special needs students in Lebanon

Economic crisis threatens gains of already struggling special needs students in Lebanon

As the school year gets underway, some parents of special needs children in Lebanon are breathing a sigh of relief that their children will return to in-person classes, while many other families — along with the schools that serve them — have been left in a precarious situation. (Credit: AFP)

BEIRUT — Without any in-school special education services for two years now, 6-year-old Imad, usually known to have a sweet demeanor, has sometimes given way to aggressive meltdowns, during which he may hit the walls and even hurt himself.

His outbursts had been mostly under control prior to the shift to online learning that began with the COVID-19 pandemic back in February 2020. Imad used to go to preschool at a school catering to special needs students.

For the past two years, he has been receiving videos from his teachers to be able to learn the name of every color and how to count to 25. But without continuous practice with classmates, Imad forgets quickly, and his outbursts have increased in frequency.

“I was really happy that my son will finally be able to go back to school again, especially that because he has autism and is nonverbal, he needs his teachers’ constant hands-on guidance,” his mother, Ghinwa, told L’Orient Today. “But I am still not sure that we are able to afford the school’s fees this year.”

Imad’s parents are still trying to negotiate with the school for a deferred payment plan.

As the school year gets underway, some parents of special needs children in Lebanon are breathing a sigh of relief that their children will return to in-person classes. However, the economic situation has left many families — along with the schools that serve them — in a precarious situation.

Earlier last week, 123 Autism School, located in the Beirut suburb of Dbayeh, announced that it is closing down due to financial issues.

While it wasn’t the only school serving autistic students in the country, its loss is a blow to a special needs education system that was already struggling with particular challenges during the COVID-19 lockdowns and economic crisis.

Speaking with L’Orient Today, Sarita Trad, the school’s president, said the economic and banking crisis had led to massive budget deficits for the school, forcing it to shut down.

“We tried to help many families by keeping the school’s tuition at the exchange rate of LL1,500, but unfortunately we were unable to cover the cost of much of the equipment,” Trad said. “With the pandemic, we would now also need to buy hygienic material, which is definitely not affordable for us.”

Moussa Charafeddine, the president of the friends of the disabled association in Lebanon, told L’Orient Today that the school’s challenges reflect especially, but not exclusively, on schools dedicated to children with special needs.

Children with special needs in Lebanon in some cases can go to regular private schools or public schools that offer services such as occupational therapy, speech and language services and special individualized education programs. But these services are not available at all schools, so many parents put their children in specialized centers for children with disabilities.

Even before the pandemic, Charafeddine said, many schools and centers serving disabled children were struggling because of unpaid dues from the Social Affairs Ministry, which contracts with NGOs to provide services to people with special needs.

“The Education Ministry owes these institutions huge amounts of money, which affects their ability to provide quality education, and the lack of government supervision has also raised serious concerns about their ability to realize children’s right to education in some cases,” Charafeddine said, highlighting that the money has been owed for more than 3 years now.

The Social Affairs Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Lebanese law states that all Lebanese children must receive an education without discrimination. Law 220 from 2000 grants persons with disabilities the right to education, health and other basic rights.

Yet, the educational path for children with disabilities in Lebanon is full of logistic, social and economic difficulties, which means that if they can go to school, many of them face a compromised school experience.

That has been particularly true during the pandemic.

For special needs students, educators said, there’s more to a child’s education than simply what they learn in the classroom, and this has become especially evident as the classroom has become a screen during the past couple of years.

Even when students and teachers have access to computers and the internet, the online format presents particular challenges for many students with special needs.

“At school, the students get individualized attention from professionals who are trained in and deeply familiar with their unique ways of thinking, perceiving and processing,” Nawal Khamis, a special education teacher, told L’Orient Today.

Ghinwa told L’Orient Today that Imad’s outbursts had been more under control when he was still among his teachers and friends, because “he needs this interaction to feel like he is part of a community that understands him. Although I try my best to make him feel comfortable at home, my end is not enough.”

Khamis also highlighted that many special needs teachers have now left the country, part of the current brain drain taking place due to Lebanon’s multidimensional crisis.

“We, special education teachers, will need to make individual decisions based on where a student is at today, compared with their status before services stopped or changed,” Khamis said. “But do we have the staff to do it? There are a lot of obstacles.”

Alarmed by their children’s setbacks in skills and behaviors, some parents are trying to hire private special needs teachers as they worry that the ground their kids have lost will be impossible to recover.

“I can’t sit there and watch my child lose everything we have worked so hard on,” Marie Joelle, a mother for a son who is autistic, told L’Orient Today.

“Rather than having my son begin school without any support or services, such as a special education teacher and occupational, physical and speech therapies to help him access distance learning, I opted to pull him out of the school system this year and home-school instead,” the mother of Nadim, a student with learning difficulties, told L’Orient Today.

“Although I am going to pay out of pocket for extra services with a private teacher instead of school, there’s no way he will be able to receive anything close to an adequate education this school year, but this is the only thing I can afford.”

“It will be a nightmare. In case we couldn’t afford to put Imad back in his school this year, I am afraid this will push him to never get educated in his life,” Ghinwa said.


BEIRUT — Without any in-school special education services for two years now, 6-year-old Imad, usually known to have a sweet demeanor, has sometimes given way to aggressive meltdowns, during which he may hit the walls and even hurt himself.His outbursts had been mostly under control prior to the shift to online learning that began with the COVID-19 pandemic back in February 2020. Imad used to...