Special Care Success
Forms of success. Differently abled.
By Sujata Devadas, June 27, 2017
On April 1st this year, after all the criteria for selection were taken into account, special needs student Angela Malveda Pascual made it to the catwalk, modelling sportswear at Abu Dhabi’s largest shopping centre, Yas Mall.
Tears of joy welled up when Special Care Centre for Persons with Disabilities(SCC) class teacher, Poonam Nagesh learnt, that out of 200 children participating in the bid to be a model, her student Angela won a huge number of votes - a teen with Down’s Syndrome who sashayed her way into class daily, pretending to be a model.
The whole school floated, riding high on Angela’s and her mother’s smiles and happiness. “Cute, friendly Angela greets me every morning with a kiss.” says Poonam, with a smile. “Before she eats from her lunchbox, she offers her food to others. If she learns someone is ill, she prays for them. Two more boys from SCC modelled at Yas Mall that day. Students with special needs ‘make it’ in different ways. To step into mainstream society and be accepted, is their success.”
Who says their lives are not rich?
The children themselves
A qualified teacher from India, Poonam volunteered at the non-profit Special Care Centre(SCC) in 1994, as she searched for her first job in United Arab Emirates(UAE). Now, 17 years later, she is sure “I chose the right career teaching kids with special needs. They are my incentive. They never fail to appreciate our bond. In a non-profit institution, it is not the ‘salary’. The kids are my biggest motivation. I hate holidays.”
Poonam with students of her class in 2017.
Standing ( l to r ): Maureen, Poonam, Someya, Angela.
Seated ( l to r ): Bhagya and Atheena
Volunteers choose to qualify
28 years ago (1989), wife of India’s first Ambassador to the UAE, Mrs. Salma Ansari, formed SCC to educate children with special needs, after creating the Indian Ladies Association (ILA) and a nursery, to help working ladies.
Students with cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s Syndrome, slow learners and those with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) enrolled - a diverse mix of nationalities: Emaraati, Indian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Algerian, Philippines, Palestine and Canadian children.
Although not qualified or trained in special needs education, college graduates and housewives understood SCC’s requirement and volunteered to work there. In the following years, several of these volunteers took courses to qualify in special needs education and work towards the successful transition of students into adulthood, independence and employment, wherever possible.
Their students hit success over and over and over again, in diverse ways.
“Special needs education is very different from teaching regular kids which I did in India, after graduating from college in education. My volunteering efforts in SCC received excellent guidance from the class teacher, Synthia D’Souza, who explained the needs of each student under her care. My fellow volunteer Nisha Thomas, who later became SCC’s Principal, has helped me through out in my professional development.”
After a break in volunteering to care for her new-born son, Poonam resumed volunteering in 2000. She became a teacher at SCC six months later.
In 2005, Poonam teaches fine motor skills to boys aged 3 to 7 in her sub-junior class
“In a classroom, each student is at a different level. So teaching them is a one-on-one technique. Whether your particular type of instruction or guidance helps a child understand and respond correctly, comes from the child itself” says Poonam. “We never let the child go wrong. Before they utter a wrong answer, we preempt it by giving the correct reply until the child is fully capable of retaining and recollecting it. The tutor’s assistance then recedes - no longer required. Patience and incentives are essential. A pat, a hug, a star, or a food item they like, are great reinforcements to my students.”
My Saddest Moments
“My saddest moments are when I desire to help a child, put in my best efforts, but cannot get through or make my pupil understand. Experience renders faith in the effectiveness of a method or technique, but it fails.”
Poonam mentions 23-year-old Algerian, Someya "who utters just one word, ‘Mama’. She comes up close and gestures with her hands,
Someya and Poonam Nagesh
making every attempt to communicate. But I do not understand her. Both of us get frustrated. Her mother is clueless too. I feel really sad at my helplessness. I turn it over and over again in my mind. What does she want?"
Someya is a fantastic person, her mother’s darling. She helps her Mom do the laundry and sets the table before each meal. She helps do the household shopping. "My class manages the canteen on Wednesdays," says Poonam. "Together with two other students, Someya and I go shopping at the local supermarket. She knows this supermarket well enough to lead the way and point to the items we require. Once these are loaded in our trolley, Someya and her schoolmates push the trolley to the cash counter. They put the items on it for billing, then carry the shopping bags to the bus. If only I knew how to help this girl further.”
Teachers Poonam and P. Satyavati Rao notched up a mark for SCC when they co-ordinated the ‘New Horizons - Towards Independence’ course from the British ASDAN curriculum for 9 children from Philippines, India and Pakistan.
Although students from other special needs educational institutions did the course too, SCC students were the only ones in Abu Dhabi to receive external certification for successfully completing and qualifying in this course with modules on personal details, details about their family, knowledge about the community, environment awareness, how to help others and how to make friends.
Based on this, they began the next course ‘Working toward independence’ this April for the same 9 kids and 3 more.
Happy? Sad? Angry? In pain?
In 2015, Director Dr.Sharina Klaasens joined SCC and introduced ‘Reflect and Restore’, the ‘RR’ interchange. Each child is asked daily how they feel. ‘Are you happy?’, ‘Are you angry?’, ‘Are you in pain?, ’Are you sad?’ If the child mentions the reason “happy because we have canteen today” or “because it is Dad’s birthday” or simply “because I am in school”, it is progress because they could not do this earlier, hampered by insufficient verbal skills. Now they have gained the ability to express their thoughts better. One of Poonam’s students does not talk but sends her “tomorrow come” audio messages on WhatsApp to let her class teacher know she intends to attend class the next day.
Forms of success, many more…
Earlier SCC assistant arts teacher, Ambreen and her son
“Each child’s success tells us: ‘job well done’ ” say Poonam and her colleagues. “With committed effort, a small school in UAE did it. Several kids graduated. Some of them integrated into regular schools.”
Three Pakistani students - a boy and two girls, born deaf and do not speak - graduated a few years ago. The boy received employment in ‘The One’ furniture shop, after his teacher spoke to the shop’s management on his behalf.
The two girls worked as assistant teachers in arts and crafts at SCC, until their marriage. They have kids now. Another student works at Abu Dhabi’s Shangri La Hotel. A graduate with Down’s Syndrome lives in Canada and stays in touch.
Poonam’s student, Regi from India, works at New Medical Centre. She attends school in the morning, then goes to work at 9:30 AM, returning to SCC in the afternoon to complete schoolwork. Regi aspires to work in the Indian Police Services.
A small set-up
6 classes with a teacher, an assistant teacher and volunteers supported by a qualified physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, a speech
SCC student Regi training for her job at nmc head office
therapist gave individualized attention to SCC pupils. “Classes with a maximum of 10 students” Poonam clarifies, “ensure proper care for each child. If they are left unattended, they could cause injury to themselves or to others.”
Parents paid AED400/- ($108.90/-) fees per month to SCC. This rose to a monthly AED650/- ($176.96/-) fee in 2005. This annual cost of AED8800/- ($2395.80/-)is far cheaper than other special needs educational institutions charge (over AED30,000/- annually ie., $8167.49/- ).
Fund shortage meant new admissions were confined to those special needs cases that SCC was equipped to handle. Some parents, whose child was already enrolled in SCC, chose not to shift schools.
Strapped by the lack of adequate finance, SCC shut down on June 22, 2017.
Do children with special needs ever lose their temper?
Yes. There is always a cause. Lacking the verbal skills to express their thoughts, they show distress with anger. Often, normal people also show distress that way.
Tough incidents happen. Unable to pay attention for long or give steady eye-contact, children with autism are constantly distracted by their surroundings. They may hear water rushing through a pipe so loudly as to cause intense annoyance. To help them focus on the person addressing them, it becomes essential to tap their hand repeatedly or give them an incentive to focus on.
A boy with autism flung furniture when upset. “We try to calm him down - and listen, to understand what bothered him. Monitoring emotionally distressed behaviour is important. It alerts us about signs that could lead to it. We attempt to shift the pupil’s attention away from the cause.” Poonam explains. “If this fails and their behaviour goes beyond control, harm could befall him or others. In a quiet place, the child is left alone to reach a calmer state. To prevent him from inflicting injury to himself, we watch from a safe distance. For other students’ safety, the class is vacated.”