“For me, back then, it was devastating because I come from a background where each child has to go to school. Otherwise, what was he going to do with his life?" Ms Atassi said.
Her experience of rejection prompted her to start a campaign to build a centre for children with mild to moderate learning difficulties.
The centre, Modern Alternative Education, will open in September.
“I wanted to start a place that is not a special needs centre, yet is for the kids who are not accepted in mainstream school. This grey area and children are lost in the middle," she said.
Ms Atassi’s experience is a common one.
Although the Government and several mainstream schools have made a concerted effort to integrate special needs children, many challenges remain, including an unwillingness to accept them, a shortage in qualified staff and high costs for parents.
UAE laws guarantee a child with special needs “access to equal opportunities of education within all educational institutions" and schools are only allowed to refuse admission to a special needs child if the school is full.
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority and Abu Dhabi Education Council have increased their emphasis on special needs inclusion in recent years, with reports now including a separate section and rating.
In Dubai, 44 per cent of schools inspected in 2015-2016 offered a standard of provision for special needs students that was either good, very good, or outstanding. When compared to last year, 39 schools have improved their ratings, according to the KHDA.
As part of its 10-year plan adopted in 2015, Adec has organised training sessions for special needs teachers and sought to integrate as many students as possible into regular schools, meaning there are 4,500 special needs students in the emirate.
Several mainstream schools in the UAE have made special needs inclusion a priority. Taaleem, an education provider with schools in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi, uses “passports" with individual education plans to modify the curriculum for students.
“I think it’s important that schools invest in a special educational needs teacher the same way they would as any other teacher," said Claire Hitchings, chairwoman of student support for Taaleem and head of student support at Uptown School in Mirdif.
Aldar Academies, which operates schools in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, has developed Inclusion Teams in each of their schools in the last five years.
Special educational needs children make up around 10 per cent of students across their schools, said Kate McMillan, head of inclusion at Aldar Academies.
Safe Center has 49 students and 120 on the waiting list, and sends four to five students a year to mainstream schools.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, recently donated a plot of land in Al Barsha so that the centre will be able to accommodate 80 to 100 students and is planned for completion in September 2017.
Mahboba Yousef Mohamed, director of Safe Center, said she was very grateful for the government support, but said that parents were in need of more.
Meanwhile, Ms Atassi hoped that her Modern Alternative Education centre and others will ultimately allow her children to attend a regular school.
“The only reason we’re doing this is to fill a gap," Ms Atassi said. “What we aim for is mainstreaming."
Source: The National, 14 June 2016