School for respect

Dina Abdel Wahab pioneered education where kids with special needs and “normal” kids learn from each other

Tijn Touber | April 2006 issue

“Listen,” said the pediatrician in a grave tone to Dina Abdel Wahab. “There’s something you must understand. Your son is retarded and will always be retarded.” Abdel Wahab’s son Ali was just three months old. Looking back, Abdel Wahab says, “The birth of a baby with Down’s syndrome is not traumatic in itself; the reaction of the people around you is.”

But the worst part for Abdel Wahab was that there was almost no information available in her home country of Egypt on what was wrong with her son. And she got no help at all, even from the doctor, who had failed even to tell her his diagnosis right away. It was during a visit to Washington, D.C., that she finally got answers to her questions. Doctors there told her that people with Down’s syndrome could become full-fledged members of society, providing early attention was given to developing their skills. Abdel Wahab returned to Egypt with a sense of hope and a drive to seek physical and speech therapy for her son.

Ali was a model of co-operation. He was eager to learn, and considerate of those around him—so his mother decided to put him in a regular nursery school. Once again, she ran up against a wall of ignorance. “Either they didn’t want to take him at all, or they asked ‘Are they aggressive? I don’t know if we can put them with other children,’” she recalls. When he was finally accepted into a school, the teachers treated Ali as an object of pity who couldn’t do anything at all. Abdel Wahab says, “They looked at me as the crazy mother who pushing her son too hard.”

It was then that she took her big step: She founded her own school, one where disabled children would be treated with respect while surrounded by “normal” children. In 2000, Dina Abdel Wahab opened the doors of the Baby Academy in Heliopolis, financed partly with her own resources, and partly through support from Ashoka, an international network for social entrepreneurs.

But good teachers for children with special needs turned out to be very hard to find in Egypt. Abdel Wahab’s solution was to recruit recent college graduates and train them using staff flown in from Canada, who showed them how to work with every child’s unique qualities. Abdel Wahab says, “It quickly became clear how good it was for the normal children as well as the disabled ones to go to school together. Special children learn from normal children, who in turn learn compassion, acceptance and helpfulness.”

These days, Abdel Wahab runs two schools attended by 400 children, 65 of whom have special needs. She also works closely with 10 other schools that accept disabled children.

And Ali? He’s a happy and sociable 8-year-old first-grader at the New Cairo British International School. “He’s doing very well,” says his mother, full of pride. “Much, much better than I ever expected.”

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