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Building inclusive schools in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is serious about helping students with special needs have the same educational experience as everyone else, in the same places, and a group at the College of Education is helping them do it.

The context for this work is inclusive education. That’s something we know intimately, and thanks in part to a $397,600 grant from an educational holding company called TATWEER, the UO is poised to help shape educational reform in one of the world’s wealthiest and most traditional societies.

“They chose us because they looked around the world and realized the University of Oregon really has talent in this area,” said Dan Close, associate professor in the Family and Human Services program.

The Saudis invited Close and his wife, Valerie - co-director of the college’s Early Childhood CARES unit - to visit in January in order to describe what UO could help them do. Their host for the visit was Ali al-Hakami, a UO grad (PhD, Psychology) who learned about the Closes through a chance encounter with John Manotti in International Advancement. They had consulted similarly with India, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and Laos over the past few years - countries with unique, but related sets of challenges.

“[The Saudis] have a very long view,” Dan says. "They are positioning themselves to take advantage of anything considered state-of-the-art: technology, urban planning, desalinization, agriculture, everything - and education."

Twenty-two Saudi representatives spent about a week and a half on campus this November, visiting COE facilities and partner schools, experiencing some Northwest hospitality, and learning more about the road ahead. Interim President Scott Coltrane was among those who welcomed them to campus.

"We're very gratified and encouraged by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's efforts to build more inclusive schools," Coltrane said. "Their choice to work with the College of Education is a great example of our global leadership in this area."

The path toward inclusive schools involves “walk before you run” steps that can’t be shortcut, and countries like Saudi Arabia have established a basic infrastructure and curriculum for students with special needs, but largely separate from the majority group. The next step for them is an integration model, which seeks to create a sense of unity, sameness and equal value between the two groups. Inclusion, then, is the pie in the sky at the end of this journey. To illustrate where they’re at now, there was surprise - bordering on disbelief - that, yes, all children with disabilities may attend public schools.

Mrs. Rabob Alzaidi, the general manager of special education within the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Education, was among the visitors.

“Before we came to the University of Oregon we did not know what to expect,” she said. "Since the first day, when we were greeted by so many people from the university we felt different. This is truly a new beginning for our country. We all said, 'wow’ - we have all of these people to help us along our path. Our dream of inclusive education will come true. There will be real change in our lives, real change inside of each of us. Val Close has changed all of our ideas about education. She has taught us about early childhood education. We now know how Inclusion works. It is both your ideas about education and the love in your hearts."

Saudi Arabia’s strong religio-cultural identity, coupled with its monarchic form of government, make it a unique experience for the Closes and colleagues – an opportunity they relish.

“The best part of the process is that we’re stretching ourselves into parts of the world that are very challenging … When we go there, we learn a lot about how different we are, but also how similar. Every country has something we can connect to,” Dan added.

Amelia Abel, a young local woman with Down Syndrome, managed to give the group a final charge. As the Saudis' visit drew to a close, she gave a brief presentation to the participants. At one point she met their eyes one by one and, carefully enunciating, said, “I can’t change the world for people with disabilities, but you can."

View a photo gallery of the Saudis' visit.