Most parents think their child is perfect. But when that child may have an intellectual or learning disability, that kind of thinking can do more harm than good. When Ramia Ali was assigned to a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), she said the boy’s condition wasn’t what slowed down his progress the most—it was his parents.


Ali’s fifth-grade charge, Jameel, was kicked out of a private school in South Carolina due to his low scores and often disruptive behavior issues. That was when he was diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication.When the medicine improved his behavior and focus, the school board said he could come back to class, but on one condition: he needed an aide with him throughout the day.


“The parents were really against having an aide tutoring him and helping him stay focused in his classes. They thought it was drawing too much attention to the fact he needed assistance,” Ali says. “They weren’t even convinced he had ADHD and went to a lot of different doctors to get different opinions, but they all gave the same diagnoses.” Special education programs assist about 1 out of every 7 children in public school, according to the U.S. Department of Education— a more than 60-percent increase from 40 years ago. This is largely because of the rise in the percentage of students identified as having learning disabilities—varying disorders that negatively affect an individual’s learning, and may affect their ability to speak, think, read or write, comprehend, or pay attention. Legislation, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has helped bring the needs of special education students to the forefront and provided more funding and tools to help identify students who need assistance. However, for special needs students to get the education they need, it takes more than just legislation and programs: it takes the collaboration of parents, too, according to Ali. But when Jameel’s parents eventually relented and allowed Ali to aid their son, she said the problems didn’t stop.


“To compensate for his ADHD, they let him skip his homework and would tell him how perfect he is ” Ali says. “They were so focused on giving him a high sense of self-esteem, that they didn’t make his actual learning a priority.” Because of Jameel’s missing assignments and lack of academic discipline at home, according to Ali, he was failing multiple classes despite having academic support available to him at school.


“The faculty tried to help Jameel in every way we could,” Ali says. “But his parents really got in the way of his progress and development, because they never seemed to accept that he was different than the other students.” Learning disabilities, largely invisible, are not only misunderstood, but also underestimated. In the Muslim community, where a huge emphasis is placed on education, getting parents to accept that their child has academic struggles can be particularly difficult, often for social and cultural reasons, according to education psychologist Haneen Abbasi.

“With the Muslim communities, the biggest issue [for parents] is that, ‘Everyone is going to know my daughter or son is in special education,’” Abbasi, who works with special education students, a majority of whom are Arab Muslims, in southwest Illinois. Family pride and the fear of society are often the primary reasons parents, particularly in the Muslim community, deny that their child has a learning disability, according to Abbasi. “In their mind, they only see how special education is seen by the greater community,” Abbasi says. She says cases like Ali and Jameel’s is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. Abbasi says she often sees Muslim parents—more common in, but not limited to, the immigrant community—argue against the diagnoses of professionals and make up their own excuses.


“I had a case where a student transferred to my school and his record showed a history of diagnosed learning difficulties, but his parents kept insisting, ‘he’s smart and can do [the regular curriculum],’” Abbasi says. “They think because the child is socially aware that he must be academically okay. And that’s not the case.” It is not a quick or easy process to be diagnosed with an intellectual or learning disability. According to Abbasi, many school districts try several alternate routes first—applying different teaching methods, for example—before testing a student for a learning disability. But once they come to that conclusion, they still generally have one more obstacle to get past: the parents. As a school psychologist, Abbasi sets up meetings with parents to discuss their findings and explain their child’s situation. And her job is not an easy one.


“There is a lot of talking and convincing involved,” Abbasi says, adding that she has learned that

certain words soften the blow in the minds of Muslim parents. “I’ve found it’s easier for parents to accept that their child has a learning ‘difficulty’ before they accept that he or she has a learning ‘disability,’ even though by definition they’re the same thing. It’s hard for them to hear ‘disability.’” Some parents who hear the word “disability” quickly turn to a favorite crutch: denial. Nasim Mirza, a learning and development specialist in Detroit, remembers a severely autistic, nonverbal student he worked with. But as apparent as the child’s disability was, there was no fighting the parent’s refusal to face facts.


“His mother denied anything was wrong with him, and insisted it was jinx, or the ‘evil eye,’ that others had caused when he was a baby,” Mirza says, adding that the mother saw no reason for tutoring or assistance. “She said he just needed to be disciplined. In the end I had to stop working with that family because I’m not able to do anything when one parent becomes such a big obstacle.” Some parents find it most difficult to understand why their child cannot “be like everyone else,” so they put hopes on the idea that their mental, learning or behavioral issues may just “be a phase,” according to Abbasi. Another concern for parents may not even be their child’s academic future, but their social future as well.


“It’s even worse when it’s a female student, because what it really boils down to is this big fear that she won’t get married [if she’s in a special education program],” Abbasi says. “But when it’s a male child, some parents chalk it up to ‘boys just being boys.’ So along with the fear of a stigma, you also have a double standard.” That’s a hard lesson Summar Ghouleh, of Bridgeview, Ill., had to learn. Ghouleh’s daughter has spina bifida, which, along with causing various physical limitations including weakness in the legs, can also cause learning disabilities in patients. Though her daughter Shahid, 14, faces both physical and academic struggles, she is also exposed to the sharp tongue of the community.


“People told me, you’re hurting your other daughter—she won’t be able to get married, a sick sister will hurt her chances,” Ghouleh says. “It is the biggest stigma in this community

for your kid to have a disability.” But, Ghouleh says, unlike parents she knows who “hide” or “protect” their children from the public eye by severely limiting their social interactions or homeschooling them, she encourages a healthy social life for her daughter, and sends her to a nearby Muslim private school.


“I’m proud of her, and I let Shahid and other people always know I’m proud of her and the effort she puts forth,” Ghouleh says.“All that has to come from the parents—that confidence, that pride in oneself. When you hide your child from life, what are you doing?” Keeping her daughter in a regular education program, however, does present its own

struggles. Shahid’s comprehension capacity is extremely limited. She is an excellent reader— in fact, she’s thrives in her English classes—but has difficulty comprehending the stories.


“She asks me, ‘Why can’t I understand, Mama?” Ghouleh says. “‘I read the whole book. Why can’t I understand?’” She also has difficulty in mathematics, a notorious sore spot for those with spina bifida. “Sometimes I like to learn it—other times it all gets jumbled up in my head,” Shahid, who is finishing up ninth grade this year. “I mix up the equations [and formulas].” Ghouleh says the school has been very accommodating and helpful in regards to her daughter’s academic needs. And she keeps herself informed on ways she can help, and has even hired tutors in the past. Not all Muslim parents of special education children deny or reject the diagnoses. According to Mirza, he has worked with some who are just like Ghouleh—proactive and eager to be informed of their and their child’s options and needs.


“Some parents jump on board and ask, ‘What do I need to do to help my son or daughter?’ and that’s the best thing I could hear,” Mirza says. He says more parents would have that

kind of attitude if an effort to raise awareness regarding special education and disabilities in the community were put forth. “I think we are very, very slowly moving toward wanting to educate our community because of the stigma, but still, people are becoming more accepting,” Mirza says.


“I think our mosques need to be more accommodating to people with learning and behavioral disabilities and can take the lead in raising awareness.” Ghouleh agrees, and hopes her local mosque will be more willing to make mental difficulties the topic of an upcoming lecture.

As for her daughter, despite the challenges life has given her, Shahid hopes to become an elementary school teacher in the future. How she will master teaching when her comprehension capacity is limited is still a yet to be determined.

“I take every day as it comes,” Ghouleh says.

“I pray that she becomes successful, but the reality is she has huge struggles to overcome.

Republished by permission from Islamic Horizon . Image by David Castillo @ 

Meha Ahmad