EF funds project to increase awareness of intellectual disabilities

The Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy - one of the United Arab Emirate's leading philanthropic institutions - revealed the impact of a Foundation-funded project to spread awareness about people with intellectual disabilities in the Emirates.

The workshop was also used to highlight schoolchildren's misconceptions about intellectual disabilities - and how changing their negative attitudes could decrease stigma and improve the inclusion of intellectually impaired youngsters into mainstream schools.

The two-hour session, entitled 'Valuing Differences,' was jointly hosted with the UAE Down Syndrome Association (UAEDSA) at the Foundation's Abu Dhabi head office.

Dr Eman Gaad, Executive Director of UAEDSA and Dean of Faculty of Education at the British University in Dubai, delivered the results of her evaluative study. She has spent two years visiting 70 schools across the Emirates to increase awareness among teenagers aged 13 to 18.

During each half-day school visit, Dr Gaad offered pupils the chance to socialise with people with intellectual disabilities. The professor also led question and answer sessions and organised games and quizzes to assess young people's understanding and attitudes towards intellectual disabilities.

She measured the impact of her visits by evaluating questionnaires filled out by the predominantly Emirati school children and concluded that a lack of knowledge about intellectual disabilities led many teenagers to form negative perceptions. Alarmingly, many pupils confused intellectual disabilities with mental health issues and felt those with learning issues should be confined to centers and they should not attend regular schools.

Dr Gaad also revealed that while some youngsters felt enlightened by their new knowledge, others felt ?uncomfortable' around people of the same age with intellectual disabilities. And all the teenagers interviewed underestimated the capabilities and achievements possible of those with such disabilities.

Dr Gaad's findings concluded that bringing youngsters with intellectual disabilities into direct contact with schoolchildren helped pupils differentiate between intellectual disabilities and mental illness. It also increased acceptance and encouraged them to be more open towards the idea of inclusion of those with disabilities in their own school or class.

Mohanna Al Muhairi, Director of Information and Administration at the Emirates Foundation, commented: "It is essential to support projects and researches that enlighten the local community about important issues related to its people.

"The Foundation is committed to enhancing the existing harmonious social fabric, hoping it reflects positively on the collective attitude towards this issue." Dr Gaad commented: "After two years of hard work and dedication the funded project has now ended successfully, revealing very interesting results, thanks to Emirates Foundation's continuous support.

"It was proven that direct contact between school learners and people with intellectual disability decreases social stigma associated with such disabilities, helps with changing negative attitudes and prepares schools for inclusion. We are proud of the work and grateful for the funding. We now call for further research in support of inclusion." More than 30 people attended the workshop, including representatives from government education departments, special needs organisations and academic institutions. Represented were the Emirates College for Advanced Education; British University in Dubai; Zayed Higher Organization; Emirates Autism Centre; Ability Centre for Special Needs; The National Institute of Vocational Education, the Special Care Centre, Future Center for special needs, Indimaj and media representatives.

The Emirates News Agency

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