The law is clear, a child with a disability must be allowed to attend school, yet many schools discriminate such children, or are reluctant to take them in for various reasons.
STARTING school for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience for parents and their children.
Parents are anxious if their child will fit in, while the fears a child may have about school can be just as intimidating.
They can be apprehensive about being separated from their parents, riding the school bus, meeting a new teacher or even making new friends.
Take Ibrahim* for instance, he was worried that his daughter Nurul who was about to start schooling would not adjust well to her new environment. He decided that he would go to the school and snap some photos of the school layout and the facilities available there.
He then compiled the pictures into a “social story” to explain and familiarise Nurul to the environment she was going to be in.
While the doting dad may seem to have gone overboard with his actions, there was a reason for him to do so — his daughter had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
People with autism spectrum disorder have a strong preference for routines and Ibrahim’s effort in repeatedly telling the “social story” was to prepare Nurul for her new school life.
A “social story” is a strategy developed by Carol Gray, an educational consultant and autism teaching expert. Her primary objective is to prepare individuals with the condition (autism) for social interactions through social instructions and expressions in a defined style and format.
Ibrahim had also explained to the school authorities of her condition. Since teachers were already informed, they went the extra mile in providing the necessary assistance and even roped in her classmates to help her out.
Now in Year Three, the girl doesn’t seem to have problems completing her homework and has been doing well in all her tests.
Like most of her peers, she gets help from tuition classes after school.
Ibrahim is grateful for the support he’s had from school authorities.
Being the adorable child she is, Nurul’s teachers and even the canteen assistants or mak chiks are always looking out for her. Even the school’s security guard keeps an eye on her as she waits for her father after school every day.
Nurul’s story, is an excellent example of how children with special needs can be included into mainstream classes or schools.
Hers is a success story that has been documented by the National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC).
The Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, states that children should not be excluded from the general education system (preschool, primary and higher education) on the basis of their disabilities.
Malaysia has also ratified the 1994 Unesco Salamanca Statement which proclaims that those with special education needs must be given access to regular schools which should accommodate them with a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting these needs.
The reaffirmation of the right to education for every child in the Salamanca statement is based on the belief that regular schools with inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitude along with the goal to provide an effective education to the majority of children.
The Education Act 1996, states that pupils who are diagnosed with either visual, hearing, speech or physical disability or a combination of such disabilities are classified as pupils with special educational needs.
Nevertheless, the chances of being in a mainstream school is still very much dependant on the discretion of the heads of schools.
Scores of parents who have children with special needs are being held at the mercy of school administrators, who very often shut the door of mainstream schools on their faces.
Among the litany of excuses given for not admitting children with special needs is that such children are disruptive in class and some are not toilet-trained which makes it difficult for teachers to handle them.
However, what the authorities fail to mention is that many school heads would rather not have children with special needs simply because the performance of their schools may drop and affect their KPIs (key performance indidcators).
In another case highlighted by the council, 10-year-old John* was forced to leave a mainstream school he attended, where he had already established a regular routine and lasting frienships with some schoolmates.
Due to an increasing number of applications from special-needs children, the school had to act “fair” by asking all special-needs children to tranfer, after a protest from a parent whose application was rejected.
John’s parents were dismayed at his unceremonious displacement from the school where they had taken pains to help him build his self-esteem with the support from teachers.
His parents had to frantically look for another school that accommodated John’s needs.
A father’s sacrifice
Currently there are two options available for children with special needs in government schools — special education in a special school, or regular schools which implement the Special Education Integrated Programme.
The other option is the Inclusive Education Programme which allows children with special needs to study in the same classroom with other pupils.
Even though his son Ben* was not able to speak by the time he was about to enter Year One, Steven Lee* was convinced that a mainstream school environment would be the best option for Ben who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Ben had been enrolled in an early intervention programme and a mainstream kindergarten after his diagnosis at the age of four.
“Before starting Year One, the doctor told us about the checklist of skills that my son had to master to get ready for school, such as knowing how to wear his shoes by himself and listening to the teacher’s instructions.
“My son still did not know how to do any of that and I was very worried about him being in the school on his own,” said Lee.
Undeterred, Lee accompanied Ben to school every day to help him to settle down.
“Of course, some teachers were not comfortable with me in the classroom but I had to be by my son’s side to help him because he didn’t understand instructions and could only point to tell us what he wanted.
“Eventually, he began to show some improvement and I decided to watch him from the class window ... even then, he would often leave the classroom and wander around the school,” said Lee.
Lee had the same routine for four years — he would remain with Ben during schooling hours and then take him home.
His job as an electrician was affected as he was only able to work after sending Ben home.
“It was not easy being in school until about 1pm on every school day. Many parents were curious to know how I earned a living ... that was a sacrifice I was willing to make for my son.”
He shared that teachers from the school were moved by his perserverance and they in turn showed more care and compassion towards Ben.
“It’s very important to have an open communication with the teachers so that both sides can complement each other’s effort in helping out a child with such a condition,” he added.
Lee added that he was touched by the gestures of Ben’s young classmates who were equally helpful.
“When my son’s classmates saw the teachers being protective of him, they emulated their teachers’ action and took Ben under their wing. Whenever they see me in school, the children would tell me where my son had wandered off to,” said Lee.
He also tried to create opportunities for Ben to mingle with other children to enable him to pick up some social skills through the interactions.
“I also taught him simple survival skills like how to buy food from the canteen. By the time he was able to call me on the school’s public phone, I was not so worried about leaving him on his own at school,” said Lee.
Ben is now in Form Three and he has been doing well in school. Lee was very pleased with his son’s progress.
“Compared to other autistic children from my son’s early intervention programme who did not attend a mainstream school, I find that my son has better social skills and is independent.
“As parents, we want him to be able to lead a normal life,” added the devoted father.
Parents know best
Education Ministry Special Education Division director Bong Muk Shin recently said that children with special needs will soon be categorised according to their levels of functionality before they enter Year One in schools.
The assessment which will be administerd by an instrument that has yet to be revealed by the ministry, would place the children under three categories —low-functioning, moderate-functioning and high-functioning.
Those who are categorised as high-functioning would go to mainstream schools, while moderate-functioning and low-functioning children would be placed in an integrated programme within a mainstream school and special education classes respectively.
NECIC president Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS said there was no one instrument which could accurately assess children with special needs because symptoms of learning disorders were diverse and children came with different problems.
“The children have to be assessed by a medical practitioner while an education psychologist is the right person to diagnose children with learning disorders. Unfortunately, there are so few education psychologists around so quite often paediatricians are playing the role,” said Dr Amar-Singh, a senior consultant paediatrician.
He added that children could be generally divided into three groups in terms of their education abilities.
“There are 70 to 80% of children who do not face barriers to learning whereas 3% of children have a major disability and are identified early by health professionals, usually at birth or before the age of five. This group includes children with multiple or severe disabilities who would need special education.
“The other 15 to 20% of children have milder disabilities or problem-specific learning disorders such as dyslexia, high-functioning autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other emotional problems,” said Dr Amar-Singh.
He pointed out that children with milder disabilities and normal intelligence faced many barriers to education with late diagnosis and limited support given to them.
“The general thinking is that all children are educable and all of them should be given a chance to fit into the system. Instead of trying to fit the child into the system, the focus should be on changing the system to accommodate the child,” said Dr Amar-Singh.
He believed that the majority of parents could make a good judgement on whether their special-needs children were able to attend mainstream schools.
“The early intervention programme is crucial to prepare chlidren with special needs for school.
“The biggest problem is the transition from the early intervention programme to school. The children receive a lot of support in the programme; however, when they go to school, there’s a hiccup partly because teachers do not know how to deal with them and the class size is huge,” said Dr Amar-Singh.
Having a smaller class size and a teacher aide in the classroom are the solutions to help the children with special needs, he added.
He urged teachers to work closely with parents.
“A parent in the classroom can be an asset rather than a liability. There are other ways to help the child such as placing him in front of the class and paying extra attention to the child.
“Most people are unaware that having a special-needs child in the classroom goes toward benefiting the other children. They change for the better by seeing others beyond their disabilities,” said Dr Amar-Singh.
* All names have been changed.