Its been a while since I’ve published a guest post. To be fair, this one took time to put together. Not only because the subject itself is special, but also because it is as detailed in terms of information as it can get. Honestly, subjects like these motivate me to continue blogging, especially on days when I am questioning the entire purpose of it.
This time around, guest blogger Geetu Navani connected with a team of young entrepreneurs that have set up a professionally managed, safe and secure center for ‘young adults with special needs’ and their families in Dubai. These dynamic, far-sighted ladies are on their way to make life better for the underprivileged. What next – perhaps a café that is run by individuals with special needs? Why not?
Over to Geetu.
Meet the trailblazers, Ayukta Thakur, Kiran Thakur and Nikita Patel; the inspiring trio who are co-founders of Dubai’s First Holistic Special Needs Center, Integreat, for young adults (aged 16-25). Based on their exhaustive research, and realizing that the new epidemic of children with learning disabilities will soon create a generation of potentially unemployable adults; they set out to lay new pathways in the hope that they may help to create a generation of employable and proactive adults. I visited the newly opened Center and was enamoured to find an immensely engaging and personalized setting. I also had the brilliant opportunity to interview the amazing young women to learn more about Integreat, and their passionate interest in the success of their students. I can clearly envision a ‘change’ happening here: in congruence with the differing learning styles and working together with specialists, parents and teachers, Ayukta, Nikita and Kiran are truly invested in this noble venture.
Q) How has each of your respective backgrounds influenced (if any) the birth of Integreat? Or, what prompted the three of you to come together to establish Integreat?
A) With Kiran’s professional background in business management, Ayukta’s expertise in special needs education and Nikita’s experience in social impact & finance, we decided to tie our variegated interests together to address the need for post-16 special needs education in the UAE. Through the creation of Integreat Center, our dream to satisfy the crucial requirement for special needs education for young adults would finally turn into a reality. We believe that our current society would greatly benefit from a more equal representation and integration of the special needs community.
Q) One of the most important responsibilities of any leader/leaders is establishing a vision and inviting others to share in its development. What is your vision? How do you hope to achieve this?
A) We envision Integreat Center to be a safe, supportive and vibrant community where young adults with special needs will gain transferable skills needed to sustain an independent life. Our mission is to enable them to capitalize on their abilities and become active members of the workforce and society. Determined to set the standard for quality special needs education in Dubai, we will be giving our 100% towards encompassing our values of excellence, ambition, result-orientation and competence. We aim to achieve our goals by implementing the right (well-researched and supported) practices and bringing in highly qualified and experienced educators to our Integreat team.
A) After conducting intensive research on the current state of special needs education in the UAE, we discovered that most parents’ primary concern for their special needs children was related to issues of independence and employability prospects in the future. We believe that our unique program would enable young adults with differing abilities to truly integrate themselves into the wider community and explore the range of opportunities available as fully functioning individuals.
Q) Brief us on the Curriculum followed by Integreat, the Asdan Certification, the length or duration in terms of years that you expect each of your students to attend Integreat until they graduate?
A) For our life skills and vocational training programs, we follow a U.S. based curriculum, which is complimented by a UK-based program, ASDAN, that provides our students with a wide range of skills needed to graduate with an accredited, internationally recognized certification. More specifically, Integreat Center channels its students into either a 2-year Core program (that can be extended for up to four years based on each student’s abilities and needs) or a Personal Enrichment Program, an ongoing course that is more individualised and can also be extended to a maximum of four years.
Q) Will they (your students) have achieved or hope to achieve the learning goals that you, the founders and/or the parents have envisioned for them in the established time frame?
A) Our program has been designed in such a way that students can achieve their learning goals within a particular time frame. Initially, we hoped that our students could gain the six fundamental life skills within a single year, but after rigorous research, we discovered that a large percentage of our target students missed the early intervention phase. Some of our students lack foundational life skills, and hence, we developed the Personal Enrichment Program to address this issue.
Additionally, our enrolment assessments permit us to evaluate whether or not prospective students would be able to achieve their individualised goals at Integreat Center; it is our utmost priority to ensure that students would be able to flourish here within the scope of their own abilities and strengths.
Q) Which are the different types of special needs or ‘exceptionalities’ that may be identified and addressed through Integreat’s special education program?
A) At Integreat center, we are specialised in catering to students with differing abilities. Unfortunately, at the moment, our curriculum has not been designed to meet the needs of students who are 100% visually or hearing impaired, although we do wish to effectively accommodate such young adults in the near future. However, our students’ special needs have been taken into thoughtful consideration and, hence, we have customized our desks, our learning techniques and set the classroom layout appropriately to address varying fine and gross motor difficulties among students, while providing the necessary aid, support and quality resources.
Q) Is there any eligibility determination by which students are accepted to your institute? Or, are there any criteria that need to be fulfilled prior to their admission?
A) We require all applicants to undergo an assessment conducted by our educational experts, followed by a parent-teacher interview to help us better understand the needs of the applicant, family background, any relevant history and personal objectives of the parents or those involved. Based on the results of the assessment, we will collaboratively decide on which program or course offerings would be best suited for the individual needs of the student.
Our assessment is tailored from the curriculum used at Integreat Center and it evaluates the student’s level of functioning. Based on the student’s performance, we will be able to recommend an appropriate program and put together the initial individualized education plan for the student.
Q) Tell us a bit about the special education experts appointed at Integreat. (Any speech-language therapist, educational psychologist, special education consultants present?)
A) Integreat Center has nothing lesser than the highest quality of resources, and our highly experienced educators will serve as the fundamental medium by which our learning objectives can be achieved.
At Integreat Center, we believe in educating our students holistically; this approach encompasses the necessary teaching techniques that are quite often implemented by professionals, such as our speech therapist who would train students on an individual basis. Moreover, we will use these techniques in a natural and group environment to ensure that students’ receive the maximum benefit from our sessions.
Q) Students with a learning disability learn differently. How is Integreat’s prepared environment designed to instruct and/or facilitate the students’ learning in a non- traditional way so that they may shine? (I loved the different rooms. Describe them please – life skills, core class A & B, the snoezelen room, didactic materials, the outdoors, et al)
A) At Integreat Center, we believe that a personalised learning approach is the most effective way whereby each student can discover his/her inherent potential. Thus, students in either of our two distinct programs gain individualised attention in our uniquely designed classrooms: Core and Personal Enrichment Program (PEP) classrooms where functional academics and vocational training will be taught, the Life Skills Development classroom where students will gain domestic skills on how to live independently and the Snoezelen Room where students can be transferred to for a short period of time if they require mental stimulation from sensory relaxation techniques. They will also continue their learning experience beyond the classroom through experiential learning at shopping malls, metro stations and other public environments where they can link their knowledge with real-world applications. Students can also learn to grow their own flowers/plants in our sensory gardens that could serve as a space for them to learn the importance of waiting to enjoy the beauty/scents/fruit of their own vegetation, rather than being motivated through immediate gratification.
Q) School settings are supposed to be microcosms of the outside world where students can safely acquire and practice skills necessary to participate productively in the outside world. How does your institute plan on attaining this aim? (Helping them integrate into the workforce, discuss learning skills for employment, skills for life, making learning relevant, transferable)
A) Integrating our students into the workforce and society as a whole is one of our primary objectives, and our curriculum/learning approach directly targets this goal to ensure that the skills they learn here at Integreat would empower them with confidence to face the real world.
Q) What according to you can parents do to help support/facilitate their child’s progress at home? (as an extension of their learning at Integreat)
A) We strongly believe that integrating young adults into the wider society must be achieved, both in and out of the classroom. Thus, parents play a major role in continuing their children’s learning process at our Center in their home environment as well. As we teach students essential life skills, independent behavioral patterns and functional academics, we require parents to assist us in our learning objectives by encouraging independent behavior and active involvement in decision-making processes at home. This will ensure that our students receive an all-rounded education, applying theory to practice and escalating their rate of progress. Parents will be provided with a “Home Program”, which will highlight the learning outcomes for the various life skill modules that will be taught at the center and strategies that our teachers recommend parents, siblings, or caregivers to implement at home to allow for consistent learning opportunities.
Q) Level of Funding – how can businesses or individual persons assist with funding Integreat?
A) As a privately funded organization, we welcome any support from existing businesses or other sponsors to enable us to achieve our long-term goals and sustain the quality of our education and services. We are currently looking for sponsors to equip our Snoezelen room with the necessary features such as soft padding, visual & auditory elements and other sensory details to help mentally stimulate our students, if needed, during class hours. Additionally, we are setting up a need-based sponsorship where students’ families who fit our internal criteria and cannot afford to pay the full tuition amount will be given financial assistance from the Integreat Scholarship Fund on a case-by-case basis. Parents must pay a fraction of the amount, based on our analysis, to ensure buy-in and commitment.
Integreat Center is located on Street 17C off Al Wasl Road in Umm Suqueim 3.
Should you wish to contact Geetu, write to her on firstname.lastname@example.org.