On April 22, 2017, SKILD celebrated 5 years of raising the banner of social inclusion in a breakfast gathering at the Monroe Hotel in Downtown Beirut, with friends and partners from the British Council, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the Ministry of Social Affairs, joined community leaders, educators, and others.
This year’s National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties brought together both government bodies in a sign of growing awareness of the need for inter-ministerial and multi-sectoral convergence when tackling the challenges that people with special needs in Lebanon are facing today. In his opening remarks, SKILD founder and coordinator for the National Day, Dr. Nabil Costa, spoke as a parent and advocate when he urged the government to step forward to meet its obligations towards its citizens: “As private initiatives, we can only succeed to a certain point without the state.”
The tireless ambassador of this cause, artist and philanthropist Ragheb Alameh, opened the conference by leading the audience in singing the Lebanese national anthem and reminding them that: “we all face difficulties today due to the political situation.” This quip was meant for the ears of the policymakers in the room, in reference to ongoing crises on a national scale. Yet, it also had the effect of reminding the audience that the real purpose of championing the rights of students with learning difficulties is not to single out a community set apart by their differences, but rather, to break down the distinctions between “them” and “us.”
This desire to deepen the spirit of inclusion was palpable throughout the session. It was reflected in the Minister of Social Affairs, H.E. Pierre Bou Assi’s insistence on referring to those we serve as “citizens with special needs,”
emphasizing their rights to equal rights and opportunities. It was also echoed by the Minister of Education and Higher Education, H.E. Marwan Hamadeh, who reflected on our place on the spectrum of difference, asking: “Are they different from us, or are we different from them? ‘Difference’ cannot be the distinction. We are all different from each other.”
In his speech, Dr. Costa called for a decisive and concrete move forward from awareness to legislation. “We need to modernize Law 220, which was conceived in the year 2000, and serve a useful but limited purpose,” he argued, “first by changing its name from referring to ‘the disabled’ – a term that carries more stigma in Arabic than it does in English – to a name reflecting special needs. Second, we need to insure that this law is fair and pleasing to all: to people with special needs, to their parents and families, to the state and the ministries; and of course, we need a law that is pleasing to God.”
He went on to call for more attention and care for the underprivileged families of Lebanon, who cannot afford to pay for private schools, nor the specialized services their children require: “Every child is different. Why does the state not cover the costs of their treatments? Parents are preoccupied with their children 24/7, and need to feel supported and welcomed by the Ministry of Social Affairs.”
For his part, H.E. Bou Assi underlines that love and respect for people with special needs is the only true measure that sets societies apart: “Neither GDP nor state budgets matter ultimately, in this regard – it is this culture that marks a society as advanced.” He reaffirmed the need to have another look at the legislation pertaining to the rights of people with special needs in Lebanon, and emphasized their right to employment, saying: “Work is not just an income. It is about dignity and self-esteem.”
This year’s National Day also featured the launch of SKILD’s publication, “Difference and Inclusion: Scientific Knowledge and Humanitarian Mission,” published by Dar Manhal Al Hayat. The book features articles from representatives of all religions in Lebanon, emphasizing the spiritual and ethical dimensions of society’s obligations towards people with special needs. Father Boutros Azar, coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon, outlined the contents of the book and punctuating its message by saying: “For our children, God wants abundant life.”
The event concluded with a panel of experiences with inclusive programs at several public schools in Lebanon, and presentations from youth who took part in the British Council’s ‘Active Citizenship’ program, a project that put the preaching in practice, by empowering students of all abilities to take the lead in local development projects in areas like Chekka and Deir el-Ahmar.
On the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties, 3.5 million people in Lebanon received on their mobiles the following message:
April 22nd is the National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties. Aiming for inclusive education across Lebanon, thank you for your support.
Jad Baaklini | LSESD | April 2017