Educating Fatina – with the support of UNICEF Lebanon, a six-year-old faces her disability

Through a UNICEF-backed programme, children in Lebanon with disabilities are being fully supported and receiving professional care to cover their needs and to guide them through a childhood of learning

Simon Balsom
Fatina going back home from school.
Fouad Choufany
03 December 2019

Somewhere, a child is being told he is excluded from play because he cannot walk, and another is being denied her right to an education because her school cannot provide specialised support. Children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of society, yet they stand to benefit the most from measures that include them, that protect them against abuse, and that guarantee their access to education.

Today, in Lebanon, through a UNICEF-backed and Government of Australia-funded programme, children with disabilities – and their parents - are being fully supported from an early age and, through a raft of measures, receiving professional support to cover their needs and to guide them towards securing their right to access life-long learning opportunities. Inclusivity is the key to every child’s future.

Six-year old Fatina has lived her young life in Lebanon’s southern city of Saida. Born deaf, her parents despaired of seeing their daughter grow to receive the same opportunities through childhood and in to adult life as their other children would – until UNICEF offered Fatina a place and special classes at Saida’s Social Welfare Centre.

Protecting the rights of children with disabilities is not a new theme for UNICEF. It has been an integral part of its programming since 1989’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – the first international treaty to explicitly recognise the rights of children with disabilities. Taking place during the 30th anniversary of the CRC, UNICEF Lebanon’s current programme is a timely intervention.

Fatina attended her first classes mute. Unable to hear at all throughout her first four years, she had not developed the ability to make a sound. Two years later, on the day we join Fatina in class, she has made huge progress.

Although her parents have discovered that her condition is treatable, the expense of the cochlear operation required to repair Fatina’s hearing is well beyond their reach. Daily, their daughter relies on the use of hearing aids, and will do for the foreseeable future.

The girl we see before us is clearly bright and intelligent. No longer fully mute, Fatina is able to repeat many sounds and, although she’s still unable to express herself freely, she has a small lexicon of simple words she’s able to use – and do so with great excitement and confidence.

Fatina in classroom smiling.
Fouad Choufany

In class daily from 8am until 1.30pm, Fatina’s days are a mix of group therapy sessions and one-on-one activities. According to Hanan Abu Diab, Fatina’s speech therapist, the young girl has made significant progress, and continues to do so.

“She’s a polite and confident girl,” Hanan notes, “and has always been this way. Through lipreading and careful listening, today Fatina is able to understand everything we do in class. But, for a six-year-old, she’s still way behind where she should be”.

The most valuable commodity in Fatina’s life is the gift of time – “She just needs more time to make more progress. If she continues this programme, then one day she’ll be able to communicate well, and her world will open up to opportunities that all children deserve – including friendship and learning”.

By necessity, our own communication with Fatina is conducted through Hanan, and we see at first-hand the patience required to hold a simple conversation with her. However, it is clear from the brightness that shines from the young girl’s eyes that she enjoys her classes very much, and the relationship between teacher and student is one of trust.

The programme places a high level of importance in the value of supporting the parents of children with disabilities. It facilitates and empowers parents in the needs of their child – building their resilience for the road that lays ahead and, meeting Fatina’s mother after class, she adds to Hanan’s sentiments of change and further improvement.

“Since my daughter was given this opportunity, she has advanced greatly! She can now pronounce short words and, because the hearing aids have given her a level of hearing, Fatina is now easily able to focus on what is happening around her. We meet at the school every month, and the teachers bring myself and my husband up to date with her progress and the techniques they are using with her. So, when we’re home, we’re able to continue their methods, and reinforce Fatina’s learning skills”.

UNICEF’s work in Lebanon and around the world has focuses on equity, and seeks to identify and address the root causes of inequality – including disability - so that all children, just like Fatina, can realise their rights to education and protection.

Fatina with her friends in classroom.
Fouad Choufany