Her lean, nine-year-old legs frantically shook, as she sat in the cold and narrow waiting room. This was her first time visiting a neurologist and feelings of fear and unease crept through her body, as she sat still and silent.
Holding her hand, I quickly filled out a packet of paperwork, and patiently waited for my daughter to be called in to be evaluated by the on-site neurologist.
My daughter attended Islamic school her entire life and I have always been receiving countless teacher complaints and concerns. She was constantly in trouble for not following directions and for being a bit more impulsive than the average child.
She also suffered through every subject and test, and her memory seemed to always fail her when she needed it most. She, like many other children around the world, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.
After her diagnosis, I began to explore this invisible neurological condition, but this was met with public skepticism and criticism.
Many believe ADHD is just an excuse for bad behavior or a man-made diagnosis. While, some may claim validity to many of these viewpoints, we have to be very careful about invalidated the very real experience of children who experience this daily struggle.
What my daughter felt was real. Her struggle was apparent and her tears mattered to me. I immediately empowered her at school with a 504 Plan, advocated for her needs with her teachers, and tirelessly fought off all who denied her the right to be supported.
Failing Our Children?
Islamic schools often struggle with creating inclusive environments, which could help to facilitate a mindset of acceptance towards exceptional children. This creates a culture of parents hiding their child’s diagnosis to fit the Islamic school “student ideal”.
Muslim Advocates of Children with Exceptionalities (MACE) is a non-profit organization, established in 2018 by a group of Muslim parents. I became a co-founder for this organization, as a result of my growing frustration with the lack of support and understanding towards individuals living with disabilities from Muslims in our community.
MACE sought to uplift and inspire children in our community who may be misunderstood, marginalized, and mistreated by an intentional effort to alienate them from our spiritual spaces.
The group’s inaugural event was held at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in east Atlanta, GA.
Hundreds of Muslims attended the Day of Inclusion inaugural event in December of 2018. MACE hosted twelve exhibits to showcase the strengths and challenges of certain exceptionalities, such as Autism, ADHD, and Intellectual Disabilities.
“Our aim with this event was to unify our community around a common issue. Also to educate our attendees on the importance of creating inclusive spiritual spaces,” Rasheedah Shabazz, MACE co-founder, told AboutIslam.net.
Exceptional Muslim children are often the forgotten souls in our Masjids and schools. When a mother decides to bring her visibly “disabled” child to the masjid, she can often be treated in a judgmental or unwelcoming manner.
“I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked to remove my child, who is diagnosed with Autism, from the Masjid, as a result of him not sitting still or being extremely quiet,” Saleema Ali told AboutIslam.net.
“I have no problem removing him for his occasional outbursts but I have been asked to remove him at the very moment we would walk into the mosque. I honestly just decided to stop going.”
The committee members of MACE decided to take action in July 2019 by creating a “Day of Access” at a local Atlanta mosque.
They joined forces with the local imams to develop a plan of action to create an inclusive space for the specially abled individuals living in the community. The team arranged for on-site sign language interpreters, a sensory room for children, accessible seating, and service aides to assist with this momentous day.
Parents poured into the mosque and had the opportunity to experience a stress-free jummah. The sensory room provided a calm atmosphere for children with sensory sensitivities to be able to calmly play during the khutbah (sermon).
Although these efforts are far from enough, there are countless Muslims across this country that aim to change this narrative.
Organizations, such as MUHSEN, which is based out of Chicago, have made a huge impact on bringing awareness to the plight of exceptional members of our society.
My daughter is one of the lucky ones, as her exceptionality is mild and she is now a thriving middle school student, however, her success took years of tirelessly advocating for her and working alongside organizations, such as MACE.
Sadly, many other parents aren’t able to experience this same feeling of success. They often feel isolated and alone in their struggle to empower their children. They are turned away from our schools and pushed out of our mosques.
Well, the question remains, what spiritual spaces are available to these children and their families?
It is the responsibility of our community to unite around this issue. The blame is our burden to carry, if members of our ummah feel isolated and marginalized.
Our beloved Messenger is the best example, as there are countless Hadiths which speak how he empowered ummah exceptional members.
Our strength lies in our ability to uplift and empower all members of our community. We are weakened by our inability to create inclusive spaces for the marginalized.
We challenge you to get involved in combating this issue by supporting your local Islamic schools in investing in resources to support exceptional learners and by supporting local organizations in creating safe haven spaces in our community for exceptional children.
If we unite around this issue, children will begin to feel empowered and supported by their Muslim community and hopefully one day one of these amazing children will lead the world.