LEARNING ALONGSIDE EACH OTHER: Both children with special needs and those without benefit from inclusive education
EVERY child has the right to an education. The principle of inclusive education is one where children with special needs or learning disabilities learn alongside children with no disabilities in school.
Practised and embraced in many countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, Korea and Denmark for more than 40 years, academics believe that inclusive education, or inclusion (the practice of integrating special needs children with regular children), is the best for both children with special needs and those without.
University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus Assistant Professor Dr Lucy Bailey
University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus Assistant Professors Dr Lucy Bailey and Dr Tida Tubpun believe that for inclusion to be successful in the country, attitudes and perceptions must first be changed and awareness on the topic must be raised among parents, teachers and policy makers.
“Research has shown that children with no disabilities do better with inclusion and that there are definite social benefits when they learn with children with special needs. It is an enriching experience for them which will teach them tolerance for those who are different, as well as develop their leadership, interpersonal and communication skills,” Bailey said.
Children with special needs are categorised as those with visual impairment, hearing impairment, speech difficulties, physical disabilities, multiple disabilities and learning disabilities such as autism, Down’s Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.
Inclusion means that all children will learn from the same curriculum (with some adaptations and accommodations for those with learning disabilities) at all levels of education, right up to university level.
“This means making the right adjustments for these children to participate fully in the classroom,” said Bailey, who added that UNMC practised inclusion as well, with students with dyslexia, autism and those with physical disabilities studying together with their peers.
Bailey and Tubpun have been involved in research on the perceptions of LINUS (Literacy and Numeracy) teachers on inclusive education. They spoke to some 300 LINUS teachers across the country and found mixed attitudes on inclusion.
“Many had accepted the idea in principle, but had reservations on the practice, which we believe are mainly misconceptions. The teachers believed that inclusion would be a disadvantage to those without disabilities; that it would pull teacher attention away from the students without disabilities and that teachers did not have the skills for inclusion,” Bailey added.
“Some also felt that the children with disabilities did not try hard enough, which shows that there were many misconceptions about inclusion which needed to be addressed among teachers and parents as well as society,” she said.
Both stressed the need to build on teacher’s skills base and confidence, as it could be daunting for teachers to adopt inclusion. However, with good teaching practices, teachers should have the right skills to teach any child.
Bailey said the education of children with special needs should be shared in a multi-disciplinary team approach — one which included parents, psychologists, counselors, therapists and if possible, even the child himself. Each child requires an individualised plan tailored to his needs.
For many years, education for children with special needs in Malaysia has largely been left to special needs schools, where all students have disabilities (all students could have the same disability, such as visual impairment, or different disabilities).
Bailey cautioned that this may be an easy measure in the short term, but would lead to social exclusion for these children in the long term.
Tubpun said this was practised because it was the most practical thing for the schools to do, and possibly the only option available to parents.
“However, by doing so, you can also isolate these children and there is no role model for them to emulate. The children can become awkward, self-conscious and impatient in the long term,” she said.
“These children have potential in them that we don’t know yet. We need to look for their potential and give them the chance to try and become good contributors to society,” added Tubpun.
She said it was imperative that these children also be given the chance to make decisions for themselves and participate in the choices for their own education, and practise self-determination.
Malaysia was one of the signatories of the UNESCO Salamanca Statement in 1994, agreeing for inclusion to be the norm for the education of special needs children. Nearly 20 years have passed since the signing of the statement.
In the National Education Blueprint, the Malaysian government is committed to inclusion, “as mainstream schools with an inclusive orientation are the most effective means of overcoming discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities and building an inclusive society”.
According to the blueprint, based on international best practices and current national policy, the Education Ministry is committed to moving more students with special needs towards the inclusive education model.
Currently, students with special needs can choose from three schooling options, which are special education schools; mainstream schools with specific classes dedicated to students with special needs (an integrated approach); and inclusive education programmes.
The blueprint states that only a fraction of students, around six per cent, is enrolled in inclusive education programmes.
Experts interviewed generally agree that more needs to be done to boost special needs education so that children with learning disabilities can integrate and contribute to society.
Therapist Gan Huey Sien came back from the United States in 2009 after studying for the Master of Science (Special Education) degree at Bemidji State University in Minnesota.
“There is no doubt more awareness on special needs education is needed, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The facilities and services for children with special needs are not very accessible and this needs to change,” she says.
Gan, who specialises in working with children with autism for the past 10 years, oversees a group of therapists providing Individualised Education Plans for such children.
Gan stresses the importance of parental involvement in educating special needs children.
“Parents should be absolutely involved because they play a huge role in shaping their children. Therapists only spend time with these children for a few hours each day. There are some children who need more intervention than others in order to grasp certain skill sets, so this is where parents can help,” she says.
Chartered educational psychologist Tan Cheng Yi says that both parents and teachers need support to enable them to provide the best special needs education.
“In Malaysia, we are still far from from providing an inclusive environment for these children. Firstly, there are preconceived ideas about them (children with special needs) and much needs to be done to change people’s perception that children with special needs cannot learn because there are methods and ways about it,” says Tan, who has 10 years of teaching special needs children in the United Kingdom.
Tan adds that although inclusive education has been present, there are problems that need to be dealt with.
“For one, there are parents who don’t want their own children to be in the same class as these (special needs) children, and this makes things more difficult.
“Teachers too need more training — they need to be equipped with knowledge, skill and support. And parents must work very closely with these teachers because there needs to be consistency between home and school instruction.
“In Malaysia, the burden of funding for special education is still taken up by parents. On one hand, they must spend time with their children but on the other hand, they don’t have ample time because they need to work, often for long hours, to get the income needed to provide special education for their children, which can be costly.”
P. SHARMINI and SHARIFAH ARFAH | firstname.lastname@example.org NST Channels Learning curve16/02/2014