The country’s public universities should come up with more facilities and programmes that include and cater to special needs people.
MEETING Lim Tien Hong at the Universiti Malaya (UM) library was a humbling experience for me. Lim spoke so confidently and he looked so normal, when in fact, Lim is blind.
At the age of 10, he was knocked down by a lorry. Fortunately he survived but the accident resulted in him losing his eyesight.
Special moment: Idris sharing a light moment with Noraini Azlita Ahmad Kamal, a fourth year mathematics major and her special needs friends.
The incident never dampened Lim’s spirits and now, he’s pursuing a PhD in economics. He’s in his fourth year at the Faculty of Economics and Administration at UM.
Lim says that it is challenging but he enjoys the subject and hopes to complete the PhD soon. Lim speaks with a smile and a sincerity that truly touches the heart.
At the UM library, Lim was with his reader, Sia Kwong Wei, who is a third year student at the Chinese Studies Department in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Sia has been reading to Lim for three years now and they are good friends. Perhaps he too should get a PhD!
Sia is one of many student volunteers or “buddies” as they are known in UM.
They assist special needs students, such as Lim, with their daily lives as well as academic pursuits – from reading, to walking to classes together and pushing their wheelchairs, and providing them with companionship.
UM has about 250 buddies this semester. The volunteerism spirit among the students is wonderful.
Muhd Firdaus Abu Hassan, 24, is a final year anthropology and sociology undergraduate who is also blind.
Currently an executive trainee with the UM Counselling & Careers Services, Student Affairs & Alumni Division, he speaks passionately about helping his fellow disabled students overcome the challenges they face and motivate them to see their disability as a strength and not a weakness.
In total there are currently 46 of them pursuing various programmes such as law, economy, biohealth, international relations and strategic studies, Malay literature and Southeast Asian studies.
Firdaus also plays futsal and was very excited to invite me to play with him and his team – blindfolded, of course.
He says that he is thankful to UM for their ‘inclusive policy’ that has helped enhanced community awareness. His ambition is to join UM full-time and one day start his own family.
As we parted ways, he reminded me of the futsal game. As I turn 60 in November, I think to myself, “Maybe”.
Ivy Yew Man Wei, from Johor, was one of the first special needs student who graduated from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) in 2013 with a degree in Creative Design Technology.
Initially, Unimas was unprepared for Ivy’s arrival as they had no prior experience providing for special needs students (and in Ivy’s case, a genetic ailment causing her muscles to be weak, leading to walking difficulties).
Fortunately, Ivy’s batch mates were on hand to assist her during the early period.
Eventually, a Proton Waja was specially prepared to pick up and send Ivy from her college to her faculty daily over the duration of her studies.
The Unimas drivers and staff would themselves lend a hand and carry her from inside the car to her wheelchair. Essentially, everyone played a role in making Ivy’s experience better.
When I spoke to Unimas’ student affairs office about their experience, the officers there said they were able to learn and provide for disabled students because of the experience they gained from attending to Ivy.
The university later conducted sensitivity and awareness training for its staff.
For the first semester in 2015/ 2016, some 80 special needs students were offered places in the nation’s 20 public universities.
Students with special needs include those with hearing difficulties, blindness as well as physical, speech or learning disabilities such as dyslexia, autism and more.
UM has 46 special needs students, while Unimas and University Sains Malaysia have 10 and 54 students each.
There are many more such students studying law, economics, biosciences and literature in other universities, among a wide range of programmes.
The ministry as well as the Malay-sian government is committed to increasing access and equity within higher education, and this includes opportunities for other socially disadvantaged groups such as the orang asli.
Though the numbers are still relatively small, the efforts to increase them are ongoing.
With the expansion of special needs education at the school level, there is an imperative to ensure that tertiary education is able to meet the needs of society.
Under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 and the Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025, we aim to be able to cater and to provide for special needs students to ensure that our education system is holistic, accessible and inclusive.
I wish them all the best in life.