Integreat Center serves Dubai's special needs youth

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Millions of disabled people in the Middle East face exclusion, and almost certainly discrimination. A survey conducted by Dubai’s Community Development Authority in 2014 estimates that there are 13,000 adults and children with disabilities. This number is expected to grow to 17,000 by 2020. That’s where Dubai’s new social enterprise Integreat Center sees its added value.

“I wanted to do something in the space for the longest time,” says Nikita Patel, one of the center’s cofounders. “Parents would always ask my other cofounders, who were in special needs education: what do we do next after students [with special needs] graduate?” she said.

Youth at the Integreat Center (Images via Integreat)

Fulfilling a need

In addition to fulfilling a critical need in the market, the center operates as a social enterprise where all profits are reinvested into the Integreat Scholarship Fund, which offers need-based scholarships to families that require financial assistance.

The center partnered with Emirates NBD, one of the leading banking groups in the region, to fund a “Money Management” program aimed at teaching students with disabilities about financial literacy. The curriculum covers personal budgeting, income and expenses, and using various payment methods.

The bank has also committed to matching potential candidates with companies who are looking to integrate adults with special needs into their workplace.

Such corporate partnerships, as well as winning CrowdFunDXB, a crowdfunded pitch competition held by Impact Hub, helps Integreat gain exposure and credibility among the local startup community.

Integreat student, Nazir, doing a counting exercise.

The curriculum

Integreat serves young adults between the ages of 16 through 25. It offers students the next step after transitioning from secondary school into the ‘real world’.

Their curriculum was developed as a response to focus groups with parents of special needs students. They asked parents, “What would your child benefit from? What skills do you want to equip them with?” The were two main takeaways: independence and productivity.

As a result of their research, the curriculum developed is a three year program that focuses on both life and vocational skills. Modules in life skills include personal care, communication, and money management. For vocational skills, students are trained on resume writing skills, interviewing, and working within teams.

Setting up a social enterprise

Getting the appropriate license for their company took a year and a half.

“There was no legal framework for [registering] social enterprises,” said Patel.

After registration, Patel said there was the issue of finding the right talent.

“Special needs teachers who have worked with the targeted age group are even rarer to come across,” she said.  

Despite these challenges, Patel is hopeful about the future of special needs in Dubai. After perfecting the curriculum in English, they hope to translate it into Arabic to widen their audience.

With Dubai committing to be one of the most disabled-friendly cities by 2020, there are a lot of initiatives underway to make the environment more physically inclusive.

“We hope to be more than just a center - [but rather] a movement. Something that we want to become are advocates and thought leaders,” Patel said.

Feature image via Pexels.

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