Learning comes in many different ways. Traditionally, it’s at school among teachers, school boards and books, which still does not guarantee fully-abled neurotypical children a full learning experience. So, what does that mean for children with additional needs?

According to the World Report on Disability, approximately one billion people are living with a disability worldwide, with at least one in 10 being children, of which 80% live in developing countries. According to the Global Partnership for Education, children with disabilities are less likely to start school and those who do are unlikely to transition to secondary school due to the availability of tailored professional support, learning resources and facilities.

For reasons like these, Sensory Souk was established – to empower special kids and ease their learning and development journey in schools and at home. What started as an online shop to purchase therapy toys and school tools as well as find education support, Sensory Souk has now transitioned into a fully-equipped store at Royal Plaza.

(Left to right): Alison Saraf and Raana Smith

Founded by Alison Saraf and Raana Smith, Sensory Souk came into being out of frustration with the lack of necessary educational resources and tools to support the development of their special children in Qatar.

“The physical store really wasn’t in the plan. This was born out of frustration for resources here in Qatar. It started with the book but then my therapist said you need to get chewy necklaces or how about a weighted vest. But luckily my mum gets a great discount at FedEx. She could easily send stuff over but not everybody has that opportunity to bring things over. Or if you do, you’ve brought it over, you’ve missed that [learning] window,” said Raana. 

“By the time you get it, you’ve kind of moved on. Some of these things are only good for the time they’re [the children] using them. Then they develop, then something else is required. We sell a lot of weighted products, big products so they’re very expensive to ship and they take a lot of time – if you can ship them,’ added Alison about some of the challenges of running the online shop.

Chewy Pencil Toppers serve as a chew toy or finger-fidget to keep a child relaxed

Prior to Sensory Souk, what brought the two mothers together was a therapy centre and a book. ‘Both of our sons had OT (Occupational Therapy) at the same therapy centre. It all started when we were just chatting one day and Alison borrowed a book from me about a boy who had a sensory-processing disorder and how he functions, copes in the classroom and makes it through the day. ‘And then when she was giving it back, she said, “Where did you get this book from?” I said, “America”. She was like, “We should start a company and bring all these products over here.” That was a two and a half years ago. Then we would just see each other at the centre and then we’re like, “Let’s do it!”’, said Raana.

“We were doing a little market research with the therapist and everyone said that would be an amazing idea. So we did a lot of research about what to buy and who to buy it from. We wanted really good quality products. Things we would use ourselves. The products on offer are based on what we’ve used in the past, what we know works and also, conversations with our therapist who we work closely with – we’ve known her for years,” said Alison.

Saraf and Smith launched Sensory Souk as an online shop in 2017. The physical store opened at Royal Plaza in Al Sadd on 1 January 2019 with an official opening in April 2019. 

Sensory Souk is a one-stop shop for high-quality therapy tools. Some of the products available at the store include space explorers, visual behaviour keyrings, visual toilet monitoring board packs, calm down jars, weighted compression fidget belts, educational support materials for use in schools and more. A vast selection of the products available at the store can be used as tools to help develop speech and language skills. The products support a child’s therapy programme and school programme as tools to not only learn but also play. 

Advocates for a more inclusive Qatar

The Zipper Trainer is a manipulative dressing trainer to teach children and sensory seekers to buckle, snap, hook-and-loop and zip
The Zipper Trainer is a manipulative dressing trainer to teach children and sensory seekers to buckle, snap, hook-and-loop and zip
Calm Down Jars are calming tools for anxious children with sensory needs and self-regulation challenges
Calm Down Jars are calming tools for anxious children with sensory needs and self-regulation challenges

In addition to Sensory Souk, Saraf and Smith have become advocates for making public places and institutions such as schools, malls and parks in Qatar more inclusive. They hold monthly educational seminars called SENCO Seminars with the support of Community Connect Doha to help educators facilitate the learning and development of special children in Qatar. 

‘We hold a monthly seminar on a specific topic that deals with special education in Qatar and we open it to all educators. For example, how to talk to parents when their child needs help. So, if a child has an assessment done at school or centre, how can you break that news to the parents, how to start that conversation? Too many times! So many teachers have these children in their classes who have needs but they don’t know how to approach their parents or start that conversation,’ explained Raana. 

‘So we’re trying to give them tips on how to do that because knowledge is power, isn’t it? Once they know what the diagnosis is, then and only then can you start with the therapy to help support the child,’ she added.

‘There are a lot of schools here that don’t assess children before they start. If they’ve started early in that school then sometimes, the traits of the issues that they have don’t become apparent that soon. Parents sometimes don’t want to be told, it’s a very challenging time for parents and its never in the plan for their child. It’s preparing teachers to feel confident about dealing with it. It helps everybody. If the parents are on board, it helps the child, educator and everybody else in the school because it doesn’t become a battle. Everyone is working towards a goal,’ added Alison.

Saraf and Smith also launched a SENsational Guide to Doha with information on centres, schools, practitioners, adaptive classes, activities, events and more for families and children with disabilities. 

Definitely Able

The Space Explorer is a body stocking that allows children and young adults to jump, crawl, and pretend while improving sensory integration
The Space Explorer is a body stocking that allows children and young adults to jump, crawl, and pretend while improving sensory integration
The Weighted Compression Fidget Belt offers compression and weight to curb the wiggles and help children calm
The Weighted Compression Fidget Belt offers compression and weight to curb the wiggles and help children calm

The guide brought Saraf and Smith to work closely with Definitely Able’s Accessibility Consultant, Jennifer Stirling. Definitely Able is Sasol’s signature corporate social responsibility initiative in Qatar. It aims to highlight the positive contributions of, and create opportunities for, people living with disabilities. The initiative partners with local stakeholders while raising awareness to promote social acceptance and inclusion for people with special needs. Sasol’s second initiative supporting people with disabilities is Accessible Qatar. It aims to provide the disabled community instant information about the accessibility of public and touristic venues through a smartphone application and website, AccessibleQatar.com.

‘We’re trying to work with as many people and organisations as possible that understand disability and the need for change. I can give high level advice on aspects of learning disabilities but I don’t pretend to know the specifics about spectrums of autism, which is where our relationship with Sensory Souk is key. What’ s the point of having autistic friendly venues but the venue is physically inaccessible and vice versa, so we try as much as possible to help each other. If we’re having an event, we ask them to come along or work together on a certain goal,’ said Stirling, highlighting the relationship with Saraf and Smith.

‘It’s a small country with a small niche of people here. If we all work together and share ideas regarding different disabilities then we’d achieve a positive outcome and break down the barrier of making venues and organisations accessible,’ she added.

The Wiggle Cushion is a perfect solution for children who have a tough time sitting still. It teaches balance. Inflate to stimulate balance and core work, deflate to use as a seat cushion and encourage movement

Under the Accessible Qatar initiative, Stirling is working to make buildings in Qatar more accessible. Currently, Stirling is working with Saraf and Smith to make Royal Plaza a more accessible mall. ‘My belief is if you get one building, organisation or company to improve accessibility more will follow. If we can use a case study like Royal Plaza that is an older mall, changes will need to be within the parameters of the existing mall, but I am confident we can suggest changes that will help everybody using the mall. My hope being that other venues will follow suit and make changes to help disabled people,’ said Stirling.

Saraf and Smith have collectively lived in Qatar for at least 20 years. Although there is much work to be done, they, along with Stirling, believe Qatar and its community has become more aware and understanding of certain disabilities. Having said that, with Sensory Souk and SENCO’s in Doha, to help educators, parents and children to have a more positive and successful journey.

For more information, visit sensorysouk.com or call 4441 0147. 


Author: Ola Diab

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