Flourishing Hala Amid COVID-19: Leaving No One Behind During the Pandemic

A targeted intervention aimed at improving the lives of children with moderate to severe disabilities, this UNICEF programme plays a valuable role in ensuring that all children realise their right to education

Amal El-Jabali
Hala, 17, receiving educational, rehabilitation and protection services at one of UNICEF’s specialized partners, FISTA First Step Together Association,
24 December 2020

The current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) context has disrupted life in every corner of the world and will likely disproportionally affect those children with pre-existing vulnerabilities. The greater burden faced by children living with disabilities means that additional efforts will be required to ensure their needs are being met when transitioning to the different pandemic phases.

At a very young age, Hala fell from the fourth floor which caused brain atrophy and an overall developmental delay. She was unable to walk or move and had difficulties on all functional and cognitive levels. Hala, 17, receives educational, rehabilitation and protection services at one of UNICEF’s specialized partners, FISTA First Step Together Association, who works with children, adolescents, and adults who have cognitive impairments, communication disorders, psychomotor difficulties, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity, behavioral and psycho-social problems. Funded by the government of Canada, the United States’ Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration (BPRM), and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KS Relief), this UNICEF-supported project focuses on reaching the most disadvantaged girls and boys to provide equitable access to quality, relevant and inclusive learning and early development by providing specialized services to children with moderate to severe disabilities.

In January 2020, Hala began receiving support from FISTA's multidisciplinary team who worked with her at all levels with a comprehensive therapeutic plan including psychomotor therapy services, a specialized educational program, individualized follow up with social workers, and a parental guidance program provided by the psychologists. The team also focused on the development of Hala's self-independence, self-confidence, as well as concepts related to cognitive skills such as pre-reading and prewriting. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FISTA had to adapt their modalities of work depending on the needs of the children while following the restrictions of the Lebanese government. Fista ensured that individual boys and girls have equal and equitable access to education, rehabilitation and protection services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the support of UNICEF, FISTA put in place a new response plan to support children with disabilities and their parents during this period and ensure continuity of services. Through a remote learning modality, Hala continued to receive therapy and educational sessions. Like many other children with disabilities, the pandemic had both positive and negative impacts on Hala’s life especially with regards to limitations in face-to-face communication and interaction, as well as poor internet connectivity. Likewise, Hala struggled in conveying her emotions of stress and anxiety considering her limited verbal communication.

On the other hand, UNICEF’s current programme and the transition to online modality amid Covid-19 changed Hala's life in a positive way. Hala's family members pulled together in supporting her at home with the daily activities that Fista's educators and therapists would send through WhatsApp videos or video calls. Her mother and father continue to encourage Hala in developing her self-independence through guidance and parental engagement sessions for parents. Her parents became more involved in the teaching process and knowledge about Hala's disability, in turn understanding her needs. Hala's father expresses his gratitude when speaking about his daughter, saying that, "Before Hala started her therapy, she wasn't able to write or draw anything, and she has nothing to do at home all day. This makes her feel isolated, depressed, and sad. But when she started the therapy at Fista with the special educator and the psychomotor therapist, Hala became able to concentrate on the activities given to her by the specialists, to use the pen to draw and write. These new skills made her feel equal to her brothers because she's studying at the same time with them.”

Hala has flourished with the support she has received from everyone around her, especially in responding to her needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the modality of how we learn, communicate, and deliver therapy services, however, it has also allowed society to learn the importance of adaptability, family support, and the continuity of services regardless of limitations. Fista's remote modality was tailored to the needs of Hala, giving her the ability to continue to learn like her brothers, and attend therapy sessions, because she, like all children, has an equal right to an education