April 22, 2022 marked the 10th anniversary of the National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties. Organized by the SKILD Center, Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU) held an event to celebrate the occasion in the presence of Dr. Hector El Hajjar, Minister of Social Affairs, and Director of the British Council in Lebanon, Mr. David Knox, among other distinguished guests.
The event was moderated by Ms. Hiba El Jamal, Director of SKILD, wherein she introduced each subtopic of the conference and the representatives of various schools and institutions in Lebanon dedicated to promoting inclusive education for students with special needs. The introductory phase included a word from the keynote speakers: Coordinator of the National Day and SKILD President, Dr. Nabil Costa, TV presenter, Ms. Elsa Zgheib, Director of the Counselling and Guidance Department at the Ministry of Education And Higher Education (MEHE), Ms. Hilda El Khoury, and NDU President, Fr. Bechara Khoury.
Dr. Costa’s speech emphasized inclusive education as a duty, particularly on the level of policy-making, stating that “God created these children in His image . . . We need to discard this language of pity and sympathy, and focus on executing policies, the public and private sectors working hand-in-hand.” Similarly, Ms. Zgheib underlined this responsibility on the parental level. Ms. El Khoury then summarized the progress of the MEHE in the past 10 years in increasing inclusivity in Lebanese schools, with a target of completing this implementation in each institution by 2030.
Fr. Khoury related the topic to NDU’s Mission, affirming that the uplifting of the individual is inherent in the University’s structure: “When we recognize these differences, we no longer judge the other as good or bad. Instead, we can clearly see that each person is valuable in their own right.” In addition, Mr. Knox asserted that the measure of a society’s progress has everything to do with how it treats the vulnerable.
Phase 1 of the conference began with Dr. El Hajjar outlining the efforts of the Ministry of Social Affairs (MSA), reinforcing that educational inclusivity depends on legislation. He stated: “Once the MSA had established that this is a policy issue, we were able to take the necessary steps to advocate for these children.” Dr. Leila Akouri Dirani, President of the Lebanese Order of Psychologists, brought attention to the factors contributing to the development of learning difficulties, including genetic predispositions, environment, and social support. The phase concluded with Dr. Reem Maouad, founder of Step Together, an association dedicated to working with NGOs, civil societies, and ministries to advance the progress of inclusivity.
Phase 2 described the training workshops and modules for teachers and specialists, presented by Ms. Rania Ghoussoub, Head of the Pre-service and In-service Training Bureau at the Center for Educational Research and Development in Lebanon. Ms. Ghoussoub shed light on the need for academic assistance for school teachers and principals, a point reinforced by Ms. Tatiana Salloum, National Consultant for the Development of Inclusive Education Policy to the MEHE. Wrapping up phase 2 was Director of the Department of Special Education at Azm School, Ms. Khouloud Khouja, who explained the subtypes of class inclusion, namely: total inclusion, partial inclusion, parallel classes, and special classes.
The conference in Phase 3 focused on special education programs available at Lebanese universities. NEXT STEP is a service provided by the American University of Beirut (AUB) and directed by Ms. Mona Maktabi, INCLUDE at the Saint Joseph University (USJ) coordinated by Ms. Claudine Moubarak, LEAP presented by Dr. Hiba Othman of the American University of Science and Technology (AUST), and the IDEAL Program of NDU, directed by Ms. Lama Badaoui.
Dr. Fadi Maalouf, Head of Psychiatry at AUB, shifted the focus in Phase 4 from children with special needs to their parents, teachers, and specialists, highlighting the burnout they experience that is often undermined and dismissed. He further discussed the process of diagnosis, administered by pediatricians, pediatric neurologists, and child psychiatrists. Dr. Maalouf concluded his talk by answering key questions from Director of the North Autism Center, Ms. Sabine Saad, and Director of the Special Education Department at Shouf National College, Ms. Haifa Chahib, regarding the administration of medication to children and parental support.
The event ended with a heartfelt experience shared by Ms. Betty Maamari, the parent of a child with learning difficulties, who showcased the struggle of parents in similar situations and the lack of social support that they receive when raising their children. Ms. Maamari shared the weight of this responsibility and how it permeates other areas of parents’ lives, including marriage and their other children. Seeing this lack, she founded Parent2Parent, a social support group where parents can meet to discuss their struggles, worries, and insecurities in raising their children with various disabilities, providing them with a space that bears no judgement and encourages their efforts.