Special education programmes in every school should be up to the mark so that students with learning disabilities will not be short-changed.
PEOPLE with learning disabilities are among the most disadvantaged and neglected in society. And it is not difficult to see why. Their handicapping conditions often leave them in a position in which they are unable to speak up for themselves. This is especially true for those who are profoundly affected by their conditions.
As a result, they and their caregivers may experience discrimination. There have been incidents in which parents of non-disabled children remove their kids from the playground when they see a child with a learning disability around.
Parents of learning disabled kids also have problems when they go out as a family. They frequently receive stares from members of the public; even waiters at restaurants stare at them.
Sariah Amirin, 68, is someone who understands persons with learning disabilities and what they need.
“Things were far worse before,” she said in an interview last week. “But a milestone was created when the Government moved to mix students with learning disabilities with their non-disabled counterparts in regular schools in the late 1980s,” said Sariah, who was one of the pioneers in the project.
“It was one of the best moves ever because it gave kids with learning disabilities the much-needed opportunity to integrate with non-disabled children and vice-versa.”
Sariah, who is president of the Dyslexia Association of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, explained that it began with a special class of about 40 learning disabled students. They had a chance to mingle with non-disabled kids during recess time, which is a vital part of social development.
A special adoption programme even went as far as to pair a non-disabled student with a pupil with learning disability. The former would be responsible for taking care of the latter, such as helping him get his tea or lunch.
“The exercise is also highly beneficial for the non-disabled student. It sensitises him to people with disabilities,” said Sariah.
A programme called “Inclusive Education” was introduced later with even more benefits. These are opportunities for students with learning disabilities to join non-disabled students in one classroom – rather than separately.
The disabled students, however, would have an extra teacher to guide them along.
Sariah feels there is more the special education system can do to help improve the quality of lives of people with learning disabilities.
The following are some pointers:
● Every effort must be taken by the ministry to ensure that special education programmes in every school are up to the mark so that students with learning disabilities will not be short-changed. Sometimes what may look good on paper may not necessarily be what is actually happening on the ground.
● A planned curriculum based on academic skills alone is not the most important thing. Equal emphasis must be given to self-help skills for each student. Some students with learning disabilties, for example, do not know how to use the toilet. Fine motor skills such as writing and drawing are important, but children with learning disabilities have problems with gross motor skills and may not know how to jump or throw a ball.
● Parents of learning disabled children – and their teachers – must address behavioural problems before focusing on academic issues. Such children may be hyperactive or have short attention spans which may affect their learning in class.
Teachers who do not understand this and inadvertently label a child as “lazy” or “stubborn” will only discourage the child and make him or her find excuses for not coming to class.
● Some teachers do not provide enough learning opportunities from fun and play activities which can greatly benefit a child with learning disabilities. Music sessions and outings can prove to be great learning tools.
● Children with learning disabilities in special schools need assistance from professionals such as speech therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists. Such services are provided for in some overseas countries. Without them, parents would have to look outside of the school for their services, and this can be very expensive.