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RABAT, MOROCCO – Karim Benabdeslam, 24, plays the piano, taught himself how to read the Koran and is getting a masters degree in Islamic studies. Not one of these accomplishments came easily. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism) at age three, it was up to Benabdeslam’s father to help his son achieve his utmost potential.
“I work hard with him to reach this level,” says Benabdeslam. “I get (home) from (my) job at 4:00 and generally all the time from 4:00 to midnight I will sit with him.”
Karim Benabdesalam is lucky. Most of Morocco’s 230,000 disabled children under age 15 struggle in an educational system that often leaves them behind. Throughout the developing world, especially the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, countries have passed new laws and ratified international treaties designed to provide basic human rights to children with physical and mental handicaps, including the right to an education, jobs and as independent a life as possible.
“It’s a matter of human rights and social justice,” says Léo Goupil-Barbier, who works throughout Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco leading Handicap International’s Maghreb project.
But these promises have not changed the reality on the ground. 95 percent of children with disabilities in the MENA region fail to receive even a primary education, according to a 2009 review by UNESCO, a United Nations agency that promotes education, science and the preservation of culture. In Morocco the situation is a little better. Still, only 32 percent of children with disabilities are enrolled in school.
“They talk the talk, but they don’t do the talk,” says Paula Pinto, a researcher with Disability Rights Promotion International (DRPI) who studies MENA countries.
One of those left behind is the daughter of Soumia Amrani, a member of the National Human Rights Council and an advocate involved with several disability rights organizations.
“I have three daughters. Two daughters are studying in the best schools in Morocco. And the third one, because she is autistic, she has only the NGO (Handicap International),” Amrani says. “My country hasn’t the right to make a difference between my daughters, and oblige me to live in a situation of discrimination within my own home and my own family.”
In September of 2014, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expressed concern that Morocco relies too much on NGOs for the education of children with disabilities. Amrani insists that the Moroccan government needs to do more.
“We spoke in the television, in the radio, in the newspaper and told to the families ‘it’s not your fault,’” Amrani says, slamming her hands on the table in front of her. “You have the right to tell the government that they have to support you.”
Disabled children who go to public school in Morocco encounter social stigma and teachers who aren’t trained to teach disabled children, says Benabdeslam, whose son was enrolled in school from the ages 12 to 18.
“Always I was near him to explain to the professor or the director and all the people who were there around him. I was obliged to explain all the time,” says Benabdeslam.
In November of 2014, Amrani coordinated a conference of teachers, advocates and government officials to discuss incorporating government-required inclusivity training in teacher education. The training would focus on educating teachers on how to develop methods and curriculum that is accessible to all students, including those with disabilities.
On the outskirts of Fez, surrounded by crop fields and sitting on an isolated dirt path, the Basma Association is another sign of a hopeful shift. Basma is among a growing number of government-funded associations for handicapped children. The three-year-old center is meant to provide disabled children with educational and life skills. So far two students have landed woodworking jobs.
On a day where rain has muted most outdoor activity, the students of Basma are crowded into the gym, chaotically swinging their bodies to traditional Moroccan music. Some gesture emphatically to friends sitting reserved in the corner, pulling them into the fray. Watching on the sidelines is woodworking instructor Mohammed Bouchke.
“We feel lucky, because in the past there was no association like this one in the region,” Bouchke says later. “In the past, the kids were lost. Lost without education, training, or anything to do.”
But the perceptions of children with handicaps may be slowly changing in Morocco. Mina Maad, president of Morocco’s Autism Collective, says organizations like hers have improved awareness and understanding especially among parents who never used to think there was help for their children.
“People would feel so ashamed about autism,” said Maad. “They never do anything, they just keep their kids at home and feel shame about showing them off to the public,” said Mina Maad.
But that was never the way Benabdeslam thought of his son. Given the appropriate education and training, students with handicaps can accomplish much, insists Benabdeslam as he listens to his son sing along to music on his MP3 player. Benabdeslam smiles as his eyes twinkle with pride.
“[His disability] is from God,” he says. “I have to face that, and I will travel with him until I go to the other sky.”