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May 14, 2003

Education Ministry stays deaf to hard-of-hearing children

From: Ha'aretz, Israel - May 14, 2003

By Ruth Sinai

Ahmad Mansour from Tira was born deaf, like his big brother. When he was two, he had a device implanted that enables him to hear. Ahmad then started going to kindergarten with other children with hearing problems, and developed well. But now, at 4-and-a-half he is at home.

"He is sad, he is violent, he is nervous. He keeps asking for his teacher. That's what happens when you keep a boy cooped up at home for five months," says his mother, Halin Mansour. With every day that goes by when the boy gets no treatment and does not study, his development is impaired further, she says. "If he were Jewish, he would not have been made to stay home for even a week."

Ahmad Mansour is one of 11 children who are deaf or hard of hearing in the area of Tira, who are not attending kindergarten because their parents refuse to send their kids to the facility designated by the Education Ministry. Not only does the building not meet the minimum standards set by the ministry itself for children with special needs, the parents say, but it is also hazardous to their health.

Yesterday, a petition was filed with the High Court of Justice on behalf of eight of these children, seeking to compel the Education Ministry to provide two adequate classrooms. "The right to education was recognized by the High Court as a basic right," attorney Orna Cohen from Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, said.

Until recently, there were two classrooms for children with hearing problems in Tira, which were attended by 12 children from the area. In December the supervisor in charge of special education in the Arab sector proclaimed the facilities to be substandard, and ordered the studies to be relocated to Al Najah school house in town.

One room was allocated for both classes, in a facility attended by 800 pupils aged five to twelve. The size of the room - if a space closed off from the hallway with a wooden board can be called that - is 15.2 square meters, and it is below ground level. The only window is narrow and long, and does not provide sufficient light or air. There isn't even a lamp in the room, and artificial light comes only from the neon light in the hallway.

The room is seven meters away from the school's basketball court, and the noise is intense. There is no soundproofing, which is imperative for children with hearing problems. The hallways is busy with children much of the time. The makeshift kindergarten has no toilet of its own, not to mention a kitchenette, dining area, treatment room for a speech therapist and physiotherapist, which the Ministry itself has defined as mandatory in any facility for children with hearing problems.

In addition to their objection to the unacceptable physical conditions, the parents are also afraid that the young children might suffer physical injuries - from a stray ball for example - that would endanger their implants and hearing aids, or that they might be bullied by older children.

Through their attorney, the parents asked the Ministry to return their children to the original facility. Supervisor Ahsan Bishara said he did not understand why the parents objected to the new location, where their kids could make friends with the other pre-schoolers and use their playground.

Should the parents maintain that the conditions are inadequate, the City of Tira and the school were prepared to introduce the necessary changes, he said. "Do I need to tell them what changes to make? Don't they know that's not a good building for our children?" Mansour ponders.

In February, when Bishara informed the parents that the kindergarten had been closed because they did not exercise their entitlement, the parents contacted Roula Hamdan from the non-profit organization of Shatil. Hamdan contacted Ruth Penn and other Ministry officials. Yitzhak Kadman of the National Council for the Child (hamo'atsa lishlom hayeled) also contacted Penn, but neither he nor Hamdan received any reply.

The Ministry maintains that the new facility is suitable. "Following the parents' complaint, an inspector was sent to the site. She confirmed that the facility was adequate," Ministry spokesperson Pnina Ben-Shalom said.

The ratio of children with special needs is higher in the Arab sector, but apparently the care offered to children in this sector is not as good as that provided to Jewish children. Last year the state comptroller found that many children with special needs are not even recognized as such, because of insufficient tracing mechanisms. In year 2000, a committee appointed by the Ministry noted that "one of the things barring egalitarian implementation of the law is the absence of budgets for adequate physical infrastructure."

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