Omaira Alam –
One of the beautiful concepts to emerge from the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and further expanded upon through the 2001 Americans with Disabilities Act was the idea of universal accessibility and universal design. Take for example the curb cuts where the sidewalk meets the street. Wheelchairs are able to seamlessly maneuver over them with little more than a bump. Originally this was designed to give access to individuals who use wheelchairs, but everyone benefitted, including people with strollers, bike riders, scooter riders and so on. It is under federal law that all buildings adhere to the principles of universal design and accessibility.
Most parents send their children to Islamic school to allow them access to a full and complete Islamic education. In many cases, they hope what children learn in Islamic schools will spill over to their own daily lives outside of school where parents can either supplement or learn from their children’s Islamic educational experience.
However, it has become apparent in the last few years that not all segments of the Muslim community have access to what can be considered a universal right in Islam: knowledge. As an educator with a focus on special education, I am always keen to determine what procedures and policies are in place at Islamic schools for children with special needs. More than just the physical disabilities, I am referring to students with “invisible” or learning and emotional disabilities. These students are initially accepted into the Islamic school, but when they cannot keep up with the regular pace of academics-driven Islamic schools, more often than not, they are encouraged or outright requested to leave.
Instead of seeing students with special needs as an opportunity for school and community growth, and learning how to accommodate them in an inclusive environment, the Islamic schools prefer to keep up their academic standards by removing students who do not make the cut. This attitude is simply a reflection of mosque culture where individuals with special needs and disabilities are frowned upon or seen as an inconvenience.
So what should Islamic schools do then if they cannot reasonably accommodate the students with disabilities? First off, reflect on what the school is hoping to achieve. What is its vision and who does it aim to serve? Islamic schools need to develop inclusive learning environments that aim to truly serve the community, including students with special needs. They need to invest in the teachers by training them to develop universal design instructional practices. In addition to that, Islamic schools must seek to collaborate with local school districts to enhance the opportunities for all Muslim students. This must be taken as a communal responsibility.
Second, change the culture around which the greater community serves its school community. This responsibility falls directly on the Imam. Recognize that those with special needs are part and parcel of the Muslim community and they deserve access to all programs and events at the masjid and by extension at the Islamic school. When we fail to recognize the presence of individuals with disabilities, we in essence deny them their existence as viable and contributing members of the Muslim community. Build the masjid, but keep the whole community in mind when doing so; include them in your constitutions, your khutbas, your building plans, and your Islamic schools.
Finally, change the attitude of school officials, administrators and faculty, by changing the attitudes of masjid and school boards. Those who run the Islamic schools need to know that the community supports them in their goal towards universal design that aims to serve all students. Show them that it’s worth the time and investment by participating in the programs offered.
These suggestions are only a starting point. Providing access to Islamic education to all members of the Muslim community who seek it is an uphill battle. Parents have fought and so have many educators who firmly believe in its benefits towards developing strong and viable American Muslim communities. As members of the congregation, and as parents and educators we must speak to this and ensure universal accessibility. Universal accessibility to Islamic education will hopefully lead us to a more unified, gracious and empathic community, by the Mercy and Grace of God.