As Bahrain’s pandemic battle enters a new zone of challenges with climbing numbers and people showing signs of ‘good behaviour fatigue’, there are murmurs of a pushback on the much-awaited return to normal, however circumscribed.
It would seem that schools will now open only for the new academic year in September and even then, our children will need to wear face masks, cut back on contact sports and constantly remember the hand-washing and social distancing rules which are unnatural for that age and setting.
There will be more online assignments and a recasting of the education system from entry level to the senior-most research fellows.
But in the midst of all this hullabaloo over change, there is one group that is at special risk because their condition puts them outside the purview of understanding the why and how of these changes.
I am referring to people with intellectual disabilities (ID), especially children. In Bahrain, these children with different needs, especially in expat communities, have very limited avenues of proper and affordable management of their condition. At best, the parents could expect these children to be part of support groups and care circles run by charities or, if the child has mild ID, then perhaps a rare place in a school that is willing to bend its classroom template to accommodate the child’s special needs.
Again, this comes at a special cost and not all parents can afford that, so even these children who would benefit from vocational training and basic education in the long run, fall back on well-meaning but hugely inadequate ‘recreational’ care.
I am not knocking such facilities – they are support systems for worn-out parents, emotional anchors for families coping with children with special needs and the very real requirements of their ‘regular’ siblings. The impact on families is especially heightened where the usual backing of residential schools, day services or respite care have been withdrawn due to the pandemic.
The emphasis on online classes and closure of such groups has slammed the doors on the valuable need for one-to-one guidance and physical contact which is the cornerstone of special education.
One despairing volunteer at a very reputed charity community centre for such children told me that their five-days-a-week, half-day centre was now reduced to just an hour of online classes thrice a week – and that too only for a handful of kids since the children with more than mild ID have difficulty focusing on the simple lessons when done online.
It has been a disruption of routine for these children and also an interruption of their ability to pick up essential basic social and life skills that will ease their journey in the future. Unfortunately, despite this temporary closure, these specially fitted centres need to be maintained for the better days ahead and the rent and salaries need to be paid until they can open again.
Sadly, sponsors and donors only see that the centres are ‘closed’ and are withdrawing support when it is critical.
At such a time, I think the government must make special concessions for these centres and suspend municipality tax and utility bills so that some measure of financial relief can be had. A slew of welfare measures have been initiated for every possible vulnerable group and for businesses and that is as it should be. Let us include children and people with special needs in our pandemic priorities – after all, they depend on us to advocate for them.