Randa El Ozeir: Undeterred by the interruption of physical communication due to COVID-19, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has continued to support and help children with disabilities and those with special needs by using productive communication tools delivered by 60 teams responsible for distance learning and rehabilitation. Suheir Badarneh, the director of rehabilitation in the PRCS, explained that “due to the sudden closing down, this initiative didn’t require a special digital platform. We resorted to groups on WhatsApp, Messenger, and Facebook to exchange the information. We had to call some families on mobile phones and landing lines when they didn’t have neither internet connection nor smart devices.”

Up to now, 686 children with special needs have benefited from the program that consists of special activities prepared by 187 volunteers, who have instructed the parents to implement them at home and send their feedback to the specialists and the rehabilitation workers. According to Badarneh, the activities aim to develop the children’ capabilities, relying on four main channels: a) equipping families with lessons and learning activities to be completed at home; b) providing through guidance and mental support a safe space for the children and their parents to express and release their feelings, fears, and inner thoughts; c) understanding the needs of the children and their parents and meet them as much as possible; d) and raising the awareness on virus prevention through health pamphlets created by the PRCS or other organizations.”

So far, 10 PRCS Branches have participated in the program, which was geographically spread to Ariha, Anabta, Al-Khalil, Tarqumiyha, Toubas, Nablus, Bani Nai’m, Ramallah, Khan Younis, and Rafah. The PRCS has contacted 1048 families and supplied them with cognitive and kinetic activities along with instructions for self-care to train the children after the shut-down of schools and rehabilitation centres and the pending of face-to-face education. Badarneh said, “we were able to increase the number of beneficiaries to reach 70% of all targeted children. The positive involvement and the responsiveness of parents and children with the program team were crucial to the success of the initiative. At the beginning it wasn’t easy to convince the parents to commit to distance learning, as it was a new concept for them, and many believed it to be ineffective.”

Given the novelty of the experience, the PRCS kept the door open for comments and suggestions from parents who wanted to improve the performance and the delivery methods of information to their children, including the deaf. The PRCS Branches created between 18 and 847 specific activities to be sent every day depending on the participation ratio and the nature of each Branch’s centre. Badarneh said, “we promoted social interaction among family members and the contribution to house chores, as well as developing language and communication capability in children, focusing on behaviour modification and boosting their fine and gross motor skills. We also completed the kindergarten program based on speech training, concept recognition, reading and writing, and sign language learning.” Asmahan Assfour, the coordinator of the sign language unit at the PRCS, said that a sign language translation has been provided to several female students to finish their digital marketing training online. And a group of female deaf students put their experience to test by producing 57 animated videos to spread awareness about COVID-19.”

“This project requires an equipped team of volunteers and specialists to guide the families of children with disabilities and visit them as part of an awareness program,” suggested Sirine Abou Samaha, a psychologist with the PRCS, who also raised the alarm that, “people with special needs are one of the most marginalized and stigmatized groups in the world, even under normal circumstances. If the government and the relevant institutions didn’t act quickly to contain them in their response to the spread of COVID-19, they would be exposed to the infection risk and death. They are less immune to facing the virus, and this affects their families’ mental health and is reflected in chronic anxiety that can develop into depression. Abou Samaha warned that the psychological conditions of these children can become detrimental after being severed from their safe space in learning and rehabilitation centres. There they can socially interact and enjoy extracurricular activities, which channel their energy in the right direction, giving them a sense of self and the right to play, learn, and live like any other child. Abou Samaha suggested to coordinate health check-up campaigns for these children and encourage as many of their families as possible to be in the digital world.

Om Karim, a mother of two children who attend the PRCS’ Total Communication School for teaching the deaf, welcomed the program. “The teacher, Najah Zahran, sends videos showing the letters’ and sounds’ phonetics, their signs, and their pictures to use when I teach my children. It has been a fruitful experience in many aspects for me and for my son. We have been able to fill our free time at home with learning. I, myself, even gained new skills.”

There is value in looking at this distance learning program during COVID-19 and beyond. “We are weighing with the IT unit the options to best develop this technology, so we can keep working with the children with disabilities during COVID-19 or any similar situations,” concluded Badarneh. But the hard-financial position of the families remains the major obstacle to meet the necessary requirements and ensure an effective communication and participation of both children and their families.