Children with special needs and capabilities must be nurtured and allowed to grow alongside their ‘normal’ peers at school for better outcomes.
I HAVE been motivated to write this article on special needs education, a topic that is close to my heart especially after attending an International Conference on University Learning and Teaching that I officiated at recently.
It was organised by Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), with the co-operation of several local and foreign universities, including University of Herefordshire (UK) , University of South Australia (Australia) , University of Ohio (in the United States) and Taylor’s University (Malaysia).
For all: Inclusive education supports the full participation of every child, with or without disabilities as equals. – File photo
Also, I have come away impressed with the positive outcomes of inclusive learning that have brought out the best in special needs students like Siti Nabilah Saiful Wong, 13, who was also named “Academic Icon 2014”.
I must point out that special needs education in the country is an area that has been given more importance in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.
The Education Ministry offers three options under the National Special Needs Education system specifically for those with hearing, visual or learning disabilities.
• Five secondary schools, three vocational colleges and one school each for children with visual and hearing disabilities;
• Special education integrated programme which has a special class in 2,000 government or government-aided schools and
• Inclusive Education Programme (pupils with disabilities or special needs who are placed so that they can integrate with other students in mainstream classes).
I am focusing on inclusive education as the landscape of special education which involves multiple stakeholders including parents, NGOs, the Health Ministry, Women, Family and Community Development Ministry as well as the Human Resource Ministry and the mass media.
What do we really understand by the term “inclusive education”?
I think it is important that all of us have a common understanding of what inclusive education means and the implications that this form of education carries.
Supporters of inclusive education such as J Rogers use the term to refer to the commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate in classes or schools that they attend.
I see inclusion as stated by Dr Elizabeth Erwin as somewhat values-oriented since the true essence of inclusion is based on the premise that all individuals with disabilities have the right to be included in naturally occurring settings and activities with their neighbourhood peers, siblings and friends..
This then draws a very clear implication that students with disabilities should be educated with non-disabled peers.
This also means a commitment to provide the needed services and resources to the students with disabilities rather than place them in a segregated setting where similar services and resources are also available.
This also indicates that the teaching capacity of the teachers need to be expanded in order to be able to teach children with disabilities while collaborating with the special education needs teachers.
It means that the responsibility for the education of all students in classroom rests in the hands of the classroom teacher in charge and that is a huge responsibility.
In line with the global focus towards inclusive education, Malaysia officially made serious efforts to include students with special needs in the mainstream education through its involvement in workshops and training activities by the United Nations (UN) and United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
The UN Convention on the rights of the Child (1989), the UN Standard and Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (1993), the Unesco Salamanca Statement (1994) and the Unescap Biwako Millennium Framework for Action (2002), Dakar Framework for Action (2000) and Incheon Strategy (2012) shared the common concern for the dire need to educate every child regardless of his/her disability or learning difficulty.
Subsequently, the National Special Needs Education System was introduced in the Malaysian Education Act (1996) and the Education (Special Education) Regulations (2013) provide the legal framework for education with disabilities in the country which are applicable to government schools or government-aided schools .
In the Malaysian context, inclusive education refers to creating schools which welcome all learners, regardless of their characteristics, disadvantages or difficulties.
It includes the traditionally excluded or marginalised groups as well such as disabled children, girls, children in remote villages and the hardcore poor.
The ministry is now making the effort to get these groups to be more visible in schools.
In 1993, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia made the first initiative to offer the pre-service teacher preparation programme leading to a Bachelor of Education degree in Special Needs Education.
This programme was developed with three universities in the United Kingdom – the University of Manchester, Univeristy of Birmingham and the Univeristy of Cambridge. Universiti Malaya has also begun offering a Masters degree programme with the integration of disability-related content.
Apart from the education blueprint, a guidebook has also been prepared by the ministry’s Special Education Division to direct the implementation of inclusive education programmes.
Disabled-friendly facilities are being provided in the respective schools to cater to the needs of these children.
Though the Special Education Department of the ministry holds the primary responsibility to provide education for children with disabilities in Malaysia, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) in the Prime Minister’s Department is tasked to oversee the implementation and to assess its progress in relation to the policies on the education of children with disabilities.
The other government agency that looks into providing students with disabilities is the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. Through its welfare department, learning and skills training services are implemented in collaboration with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based rehabilitation centres.
NGOs and the private sector play an important role too in this field of education as there are non-profit learning and care centres (e.g Malaysian Care Community Services, Kiwanis Centre ) that provide early intervention, learning, rehabilitation and training programmes for children with disabilities. This role fills an important gap in the public system.
The National Early Childhood Intervention Council actively campaigns and raises the awareness of the need for parents and teachers to identify children with disabilities so that early intervention can take place to assist them.
Though the Malaysian government recognises that inclusive education is an effective means of building an inclusive society and overcoming discriminatory attitudes, enrolment in this programme is still low.
As of April 30, the number of children with special education needs in inclusive education program stands at 58,253 while 1,742 schools offer inclusive education programmes.
It has not been an easy ride and there are many challenges. They include:
• The shortage of qualified teachers, shortage of professional support such as speech and language therapists and educational psychologists.
• The lack of a tailored curriculum for certain learning disabilities;
• Inadequate disabled-friendly facilities in mainstream schools;
• Lack of uniformity of access to education services especially in Sabah and Sarawak and the interior of other states; and·
• Insufficient sensitive technological devices like hearing aids, Braille typing machines etc.
It is obvious that it is not an easy task when it comes to implementing inclusive education as it challenges the current educational practices and administration.
I must say that despite these setbacks, there have been some success stories of those with special education needs earning diplomas and degrees from tertiary institutions and excelling in entertainment and arts and students like Siti Nabilah, the child of a hearing and speaking impaired couple, who has done well in school.
We need to be driven by strategic partnerships comprising the families and communities, local and national NGOs, international organisations and governments to create a society of respect and acceptance for children with disabilities.
We need to create a strong awareness on the communities that students with special needs have the potential to excel and their disability can be minimised if they are given equal opportunities to learn in the mainstream classes.
The latest thinking on the critical importance of inclusive education highlighting on what can still be done, calls for a review of the existing practices, perspectives and framework by carrying out case studies and making relevant analyses of the data collected.
This move needs to explore the full array of social and educational benefits of the different programmes for students with disabilities. It also needs to explore how related evidence of return on investment in the global knowledge economy can be manifested and managed across other countries. I hope passionate experts in this field of education will be able to shed light on the relevance of inclusive education in relation to training such students to enter the labour market by looking into their needs so as to facilitate school-to-work transitions.
The writer, Datuk Mary Yap is Deputy Education Minister. Connect with her via Twitter @maryyapkc and Facebook.com/maryyapkainching. This is one in a series of articles which appears every fortnight in this column. It also sees the contributions of Second Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh and Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan who share their views on various education-related issues.