Saudi Arabia: An American Woman Discusses Severe Communication Impairments

It is with pleasure that American Bedu interviews Angela Desideri M.S. CCC-SLP.  Angela is the Director of Speech-Language Pathology for Global Augmentative Communication Innovators.  As a clinical practitioner, Angela has developed and implemented programs which benefit individuals with severe communication impairments (SCI).  During Spring 2010, she and colleagues took part in a trade mission led by the U.S Saudi Arabian Business Council accompanied by Congressman Keith Ellison and 17 businesses from Minnesota to Saudi Arabia.  Angela has agreed for American Bedu to ask her questions about her travel and experiences in Saudi Arabia.

Thanks Angela for this opportunity!  Can you provide some background on how the opportunity evolved to be part of the trade delegation with Congressman Ellison?

First, I would like to thank American Bedu for the opportunity to share my experiences in Saudi Arabia and discuss this topic in more detail.

I had the opportunity to meet Congressman Ellison over a year ago. We discussed presentations I had done for disability centers and parents throughout the Arab Gulf Coast Region, on the topic of Assistive Technology and its benefits for individuals who experience severe communication impairments (SCI).

I learned Congressman Ellison is a strong advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities and improving relations between the United States and the Muslim world. From that discussion, he encouraged us to learn more about the upcoming trade mission.

I would like to briefly explain severe communication impairments(SCI).   It effects individuals diagnosed with autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Stroke, Traumatic Brain Injury, and several other disabilities.

Communication impairments are one of the more exasperating disabilities worldwide. To try and understand this, imagine going a whole day without being able to verbalize your thoughts, feelings, and needs, or living a day with a family who desperately wants to understand their child, but does not know how to do this. The emotional and financial burden on a family and society are enormous. The majority  of individuals with SCI have the mental capacity to learn and improve, but simply need the proper identification, intervention, and instruction.

Had you ever traveled to Saudi Arabia before?  What were your initial thoughts on traveling to the Kingdom?

No, this was my first time.  I had traveled to other GCC countries, so my initial thoughts on traveling to the Kingdom were “ How would Saudi Arabia be similar and different from the those countries?” Some of the thoughts I had were:

•             Where are the family entrances located in restaurants?

•             What is the proper greeting in a business meeting?

•             Do I wear a hijab with the abaya?

I wanted to make sure I was respectful of the culture when meeting people.

Before you departed for the Kingdom, did you believe you were well prepared for the customs, culture and tradition?  How did your advance expectations measure up to the reality of arrival?

I felt fairly well prepared.  As for the reality of my arrival,  on our transfer from Riyadh airport to our hotel, I can remember thinking how vast everything was. I suppose I felt this way by looking at the hundreds or thousands of building cranes.  Later, I found out this was for Princess Noura University, the largest university being built for women in the world.

Can you share with American Bedu readers your agenda and objectives during your trip?

Our agenda included several meetings per day, lunches, and dinners all designed to learn more about collaborative opportunities to work with Saudi professionals. Our objectives were to develop meaningful relationships with professionals in the field of communication disorders, better understand the needs and obstacles they face, and develop a clear plan of action on how to assist.

What cities did you travel to?  What facilities and/or organizations did you visit?  What was your reception?

We traveled to Riyadh and Dammam. We visited the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, Prince Salman Center for Disability Research, King Saud University, and King Fahad Medical City.  We also had receptions at the Riyadh and Dammam Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, our delegation traveled to Janadriyah, where we were given a lengthy tour of the large Saudi heritage festival taking place.

Our reception was well received. I truly felt like we were able to speak openly about the immediate needs and challenges faced with each facility.

At the festival we were treated as distinguished guests. 

You mentioned that the places you visited included King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre; King Saud University; and Prince Salman Center for Disability Research.  What kind of impression did you come away with on these respective facilities and their awareness of and responsiveness to the needs of Saudi citizens with communication impairments and other disabilities?

Everyone we met with was gracious and hospitable.  LOTS of tea and coffee, which I loved!  Our team was impressed with the amount of time they spent discussing their needs. They openly discussed several challenges they faced to meet the needs of the Saudi citizens. The biggest obstacle they face is a shortage of speech-language pathologists, combined with the growing population, in desperate need of specialized services.

In regards to awareness, King Fahad Medical City was putting together an autism awareness campaign at the time. We discussed the importance of early identification.  It is critical for parents to be aware of communication milestones their child should be reaching. If they are not reaching these milestones, assessment is needed to determine the appropriate intervention strategies.

I came away with the fact they importantly recognized the need to do more to help solve the current and growing problems faced in the Kingdom. I believe that is part of the reason we were received so enthusiastically. They were eager to learn of the state of the art technological tools I have successfully helped to develop and implement in the United States, and how to bring these tools to the Kingdom.

The responsiveness is partly to be determined by how successfully they integrate Saudi professional men, women, and adapt with technological advancements.  I believe the integration of women being the most essential.

What kind of programs and services are presently in existence in Saudi Arabia?  How do these programs and services compare to those in the United States?

Our meetings were focused on the topic of assistive technology (AT). AT is technology used to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. The topic is very specific and relates primarily to those who have SCI, therefore it’s hard for me to comment on other services outside of that.

What improvements, if any, would you recommend be initiated and implemented in Saudi Arabia towards those with communication impairments and disabilities?

Each facility had different needs that varied. We discussed recommendations with each facility with the primary theme of implementing assistive technology programs that allow greater family participation.

Below are the needs we discussed specific to each facility and possible recommendations to be implemented:

King Faisal Hospital and Research Center- Implement an assistive technology center or “hub” where it can expedite access to resources and evaluate and refer cases that require advanced or specialist treatment.

Prince Salman Center for Disability Research- Joint collaboration between the King Abdullah City for Science and Technology (KACST) to develop assistive technologies in Arabic language that can be implemented at schools and home. For example, 10-20 minute lessons that help  teach language, learning, and communication concepts.

King Saud University-  Implementing certified training on the use of assistive technology to its students

What seem to be some of the most common communication impairments in Saudi Arabia?  Why do you think these particular impairments are most common?

Some of the common communication impairments were caused by autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and others resulting from Genetic conditions.

The disability prevalence is similar to other developed countries, except that communication disorders, particularly among infants and toddlers are significantly under-identified in Saudi Arabia. (Exception being genetic related issues, which we were were told is more prevalent due to inter-family marriage)

Did you have opportunities to speak with Saudi parents who have a child with an impairment?  How knowledgeable are the parents on available treatment methods?  How well-equipped are the schools and the teachers to have a child enrolled with an impairment or disability?

No, unfortunately that wasn’t possible on this trip, but we discussed holding a workshop that parents could attend when we return.  We were told that many private clinics/schools are offering services stating they are qualified to care for children with special needs, but in reality do not have the staff capable nor certification. I can only think of how troublesome that must be for parents.

Also, we were told the public schools are are under staffed and the majority are not well-equipped to handle children with special needs. This was a priority they were attempting to address.

Let’s shift now to your experiences in traveling with Congressman Ellison.  Not all of American  Bedu readers may be aware that he is the first Muslim to be elected to serve in the U.S. Congress.  Do you think his faith impacted on the kind of reception the delegation received on arrival in Saudi Arabia?  Do you think more doors were opened because he is a Muslim?

I believe doors were opened primarily because Congressman Ellison speaks from the heart about his commitment to improving relationships between our countries. With that being said, it certainly did not hurt that he is Muslim. During the visit, Congressman Ellison had the opportunity to visit with King Abdullah to discuss the trade mission and its goals.

How do you think this delegation helped to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world?  What specific differences, if any, do you think Congressman Ellison made towards building stronger bridges of understanding?

I believe we took a step in the right direction. Working together to improve the lives of children with special needs is a noble cause that builds life-lasting relationships. Ask a mother or father how they feel about their therapist that has helped their child say “mommy” or “daddy” for the first time. Those are experiences you never forget.

Congressman stated this is an on-going commitment and plans to continue  “building bridges” of understanding for years to come. He has personally encouraged us to keep him posted on the progress we make with the facilities we met with and firmly believe he is committed to this cause.

Who or what made the greatest impression upon you during your trip and why?

It was speaking with King Faisal Hospital and Research Center and learning about the complex cases that come in. The staff director is an American who has lived in Saudi Arabia for years who shared personal and professional experiences of living in the country and caring for the Saudi people.

Also, we were lucky our meeting was at the hospital, because my colleague bumped his head on the way out and required stitches. We got a first-hand experience of the emergency room and we were very impressed!

Please share your most memorable experience of your trip to Saudi Arabia.

A Few:

•             The trip to the Janadriyah festival was the most memorable. I got to see and learn more about the culture, history, and vision of education as the leading path to its future.

•             Eating on the floor without utensils and yes I tried camel, but I did not like it.

•             Most importantly, getting to know fellow Saudi speech-language pathologists and exchanging knowledge about different cases and getting to know them on a personal level.

In closing, are there any additional comments you’d like to make?

We intend on returning to the Kingdom in 2011 to provide training and participate in collaborative research. Our goal is to implement advanced programs that enable Saudi professionals to better care for those with special needs and integrate family-oriented programs into their child’s communicative development.

I encourage those who have interest on the topic to go to our website at and to sign up for our free updates. We have developed a cost effective assistive technology tool that is scheduled to be released in October in English. I plan on providing informative therapy strategies with the updates.

I’m excited to  be a small part of the continued effort to “building bridges” and look forward to keeping you posted.

Thank You for letting me share my experiences.

All the best,


4 Responses

  1. This was a great read, plus a positive start to the day.:)

    Rep. Ellison is a really good guy, When I was an undergrad at American U. I wanted to intern at his office but ended up in another office. His staffers were so chill and 100% awesome.

  2. Al Salam Aliekum Angela,
    Thank you for this wonderful interview and for your care about kids and my thanks extend to the wonderful congressman Ellison. You are very welcome in the kingdom and I wish that you return to the kingdom soon.

    By the way, you are very sweet in Hijab and I think that picture was taken in Al Faisalyah Tower? (: .

  3. Enjoyed this!

  4. This is inspiring! I might actually consider a career in speech-language pathology! Thank you!

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