September 21st, 2015

Making varsities more inclusive

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.

School head’s triumphant tale

Ruth Cheah has a reason to share her story. She managed to turn around a school that was failing badly to one that is making tremendous progress in just three years!

IT was dangerously close to being the lowest ranking school in the country.

In fact, SMK Tropicana was marked as a Band Five school and ranked in the bottom 12% nationwide.

All this changed when Ruth Cheah Kah Yok, 59, stepped in as the principal in 2012.

SMK Tropicana now ranks 819 out of the 2,300 schools in the country.

Inspiring students: Cheah with one of the murals done by volunteers to beautify the school

“That’s a jump of 1,202 spots!” she exclaims.

Cheah is quick to point out that it has not been an easy climb over the short time period. She shares that when she first stepped foot in the school, vandalism and gangsterism were rife.

Bright idea: Colourful and functional, Cheah says the lockers have come in handy as students can now store their books. It makes it easier for them to carry their school bags.
Bright idea: Colourful and functional, Cheah says the lockers have come in handy as students can now store their books. It makes it easier for them to carry their school bags.

“Staff morale was low and teachers discouraged, because the children were all so rude,” she says.

It was so bad that teachers sometimes dreaded coming to work. Cheah describes the situation in the school then as a “broken culture”.

Her definition of “broken culture” is where school furniture, including its fittings such as fans and plug points, were damaged.

“Chairs, tables, switches, doors ... you name it, all were probably faulty or badly vandalised, they were useless.

“The doors were punched through and the plug points were dangling from the walls. It was so bad that I was embarrassed to take visitors around the school,” she says.

Cheah says the majority of the pupils come from nearby Kampung Cempaka, a Chinese village where the majority of the residents are from the lower-income group.

“Many of the parents work as hawkers and spend so much time trying to make ends meet, they neglect their children,” she says, adding that some of the students even work at their parents’ stalls after school to supplement the family income.

Cheah believes she was sent to head the school for a reason – she had the experience and talent to raise the school’s rankings.

Her 25 years as SMK Damansara Jaya principal stood her in good stead and would certainly see her bring positive changes to a school that was in the bottom rung.

Looking back, Cheah says it wasn’t easy. Her close friends had advised her against taking up the position, but she saw it as a challenge.

When asked how she persevered when things became tough, she leaves it to divine intervention.

“I believe I got my strength from God and prayer,” she says.

When Cheah first stepped foot into the school, she says she had to quickly diagnose the situation and come up with a plan to “fix things”.

“I had to figure out what actually caused the school to drop so far in its rankings. Why the teachers were so down. Why those in charge could not make headway in the school,” she adds.

One of the first things she did was to seek help from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by sending them pictures of the school and every broken item in it.

“I knew I could not do this alone,” she says.

Next, she reached out to the parents by sending a letter in both Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin.

Surprisingly, she received RM17,000 from the first collection drive and she says the first item on her agenda was to instal grilles in the school.

“I needed the grilles (which were installed at the base of each staircase) to prevent the students from freely roaming around the school,” she says.

She emphasises that she needed to control the students’ movements if she wanted to instil law and order back in the school. She also had new doors and even added grilles on the classroom doors and windows. There was also enough money to change all the electrical switches and paint over the graffitied walls. Companies and NGOs also stepped in to help with the painting, with volunteers even showcasing their creativity on the murals dotting the school walls.

Fixing the school’s outward appearance was easy. But changing the mindsets of students proved to be the biggest challenge. After meeting with her fellow educators, they came up with a discipline guidebook that clearly spells out all school rules and regulations. It included a demerits that would be handed out if the rules were broken.

Cheah says it was important that a demerit system was introduced, before a merit system.

“I needed to lay down the law,” she explains.

She also says that when she disciplined the students, she would receive backlash from some parents. There were some who were willing to see and listen to reason, but there were plenty who accused her of being too harsh. Still, she says, she persevered as she insists the school is not a “babysitting service”.

“ A school is an institution where a teacher teaches and a student listens and learns. If these two basic functions are not carried out, then this is not a school,” she says.

Cheah is not without a heart. She made it a point to provide spare school uniforms and school shoes to students who would come in tattered uniforms or slippers because their only pair of shoes were wet.

“You must understand that these are poor children,” she says, adding that she also managed to convince a local NGO to provide free breakfast to 50 poor students every day.

All her hard work paid off as in under six months, the school received an award for the highest jump in the PMR 2012 results.

Parents were also asking to enrol their children in the school - a place they once tried to avoid. It really boosted the teachers’ morale and they are now inspired to teach and go the extra mile.

She thanks the school’s teachers and staff, for without them she says “this success story would not have been possible”.