How much does it cost to educate a special needs child in UAE?
Special needs education centres need to maximise their resources - equipment, technology and qualified staff - to be successful.
There are 11 special needs centres registered under the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) in the city.
On average, it costs about double the amount to effectively educate a child with disabilities as it does to educate a child without. But for some parents here, the financial burden isn't the only challenge.
"The decision of where to enroll your child is not easy. There are several centres here for differently-abled children but there is no curriculum as such, so often, we're going in blind," one parent (who wished to remain unnamed), told Khaleej Times.
Because the need for each child is specific, she said finding the "right fit" is not easy.
"We don't have the luxury of picking and choosing what suits us, like parents of children in mainstream schools do."
According to the 2015-16 figures from the Dubai Statistics Centre, there are 11 special needs centres registered under the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) in the city.
Bittersweet journey for parents with special needs children in UAE
Though the exact number of students enrolled in each centre is unknown, the number of new student registrations for 2015-16 (latest statistics) sat at 1,387.
With more than 13,000 people living with disabilities in Dubai (not all of which are children), it's not a lack of centres which is proving the problem. It's the cost - and in some instances the quality vs that cost - which is the biggest hurdle for parents.
But for centres themselves, the need for specialised resources and staff is what is causing this spike in fees.
What are the biggest challenges for special needs centres in Dubai?
For Vijay Raghavan, father of two, the difference in schooling fees for his 13-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, is more than double the fees he pays for his daughter, who is in a mainstream school.
"I pay about Dh17,000 a year for my daughter's school, but when I went to enrol my son in a centre, I was quoted anywhere between Dh45,000 and Dh65,000."
And the high fees, along with the long waiting lists, forced him to home-school his son.
What do parents of special needs children in UAE need?
"I was quoted a waiting time of between three and six months because many of the centres didn't have the resources to take on more students. They'd reached maximum capacity," Raghavan said.
But why should parents be forced to accept that long waiting lists are just part of the process? This should not be the reality, but it is, he said.
Raghavan made a point to reiterate that it's not a question of quality of centres here, as they are "up to the mark", but for many it is a question of circumstance. And it's a circumstance they have no control over.
"Many parents have no choice but to enrol their children in centres like this. It's the only place their needs can be met. I urge the government to intervene and cut the costs of education for such children and parents like me. It needs to be more affordable," he said.
For him, the end-goal is to see his son in a mainstream school, where school curriculums see it mandatory to house children who are differently-abled, as it will promote "social development as well as academic development".
"I don't think it's a question of needing more centres here for special needs. We have them and they are doing a good job, it's just a question of restructuring the fees. For children who cannot enter mainstream school, these centres are their only choice," Raghavan said.
For now, he said he will continue to keep his son at home as he is the family's only breadwinner, but like Raghavan, many parents in the UAE feel forced to keep their special needs child at home - with cost factors sadly taking precedence over the development of their child.
Where the needs lie
When speaking to several special needs centres here, there was a consensus that finding the "right staff" - and keeping hold of them - is often a big issue, as it requires a big investment on the centre's part.
"We don't take people who are not qualified but people come in with qualifications from different countries, so we have an intense training programme in place," one centre director said.
With an initial training period of three months, enhancement training is also offered to ensure staff development does not stale, but this has its disadvantages.
"Many tend to leave after the probation period. Although the staff is very dedicated to the job, they need to live and earn a good salary. In the last three years, we have had about 16 staff leave during or at the end of their probation period," she said.
Last year, during the first AccessAbilities Expo in Dubai, Community Development Authority's (CDA) Dr Hussein Ali Maseeh told Khaleej Times that families of individuals with special needs need a "high standard service, at an affordable cost".
At that time, he made a call-out for "financial funding schemes" in a bid to promote equality, and said the expo should act as a "call to the government, organisations and NGOs" to think of solutions to lower these costs.
And although Dubai has issued its own legislation, Law No 2 of 2014 Concerning the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which affirmed that people with disabilities had the right to inclusive environments, education, and social care - it seems the services are there, but the reachability, for many parents, is still playing catch up.
Know more about Al Noor Training Centre
> Number of students: 2,100
> Age group: 3 years to 17 years old
> Graduates in full or part-time employment: 27 working in the community under the Supported Employment Programme
> 12 working in the school under the Sheltered Employment Programme
NOTE: Work Placement Unit has provided external employment to approximately 100 students since its foundation in 2001
What does Dh45,000 fee at Al Noor cover?
> Special education
> Therapy services - physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy
> Assistive technology
> Psychological service and services of the social worker
> Vocational training including wood design technology, printing technology, fashion technology and bakery
> Co-curricular services such as sports, swimming, art and craft
> Information and communication technology
> Department for services for children with autism
> Total fees sponsorships allotted in the current year: Dh2,565,500
> Fees sponsorships covered by donors/sponsors: Dh1,430,500 (56%)
> Fees sponsorships to be covered (deficit for Al Noor): Dh1,135,000 (44%)