Special needs learners face obstacles

It is time for the authorities to look into a segment of society that needs to get an equal and inclusive education.

SPECIAL needs education in Malaysia still has a long way to go if it is to prepare young people afflicted with various disabilities for life beyond school.

Parents with special needs children have pointed out that one of the shifts in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 stipulates that equal access to quality education of an international standard must be available to all. Yet many remain sceptical.

The Blueprint acknowledges that, although this group has access to different schooling options, the quality of education for them is not without its shortcomings.

The shortage of qualified teachers, speech and occupational therapists is but one. The limited support and funding for those with autism, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are among the others.

In line with current education policies, special needs students can enrol in special education schools for students with different disabilities.

Thinking caps on: Special needs teens working on puzzles as their teachers watch them.
Thinking caps on: Special needs teens working on puzzles as their teachers watch them.

They also have the choice of enrolling in a special education integrated programme in which there are dedicated classes for such students, or in inclusive education programmes where they are integrated into mainstream classes.

These options are available at national schools.

“Learning should actually start even before children with special needs enter schools,” says Laura Yap, the founder and programme coordinator of Early Intervention Programme-Autism Sdn Bhd (EIP-Autism).

In 2004, Yap set up the centre as she was both disappointed and frustrated after failing to find a school that offered a comprehensive range of therapies needed to prepare autistic children for their schooling years and life beyond.

“When these children start school, the situation becomes more complicated,” says Yap whose 15-year old son Khoo Yuan Li is autistic.

“Although they are placed in a special education class, the children are only taught life skills.”

Hearing the complaints of other parents facing a similar dilemma prompted Aly Cheah to try and find a solution.

The parents of children in a special needs playgroup her daughter was a part of, had expressed their concerns about the lack of schools or institutions in Malaysia that catered to these children.

It was then that she decided to open her own centre as she wanted only the best for her daughter Susanna who has Down Syndrome.

Initially it had only eight children but with an increasing number of parents seeking better facilities for their special needs children, the centre, like many others that have mushroomed in recent years, now has 36 students and 10 teachers.

“To me, as a mother of a special child, I know what I want for Susanna, and that is what I wanted for the other children as well. I just treat them as my own children,” she says about deciding what will be taught at BLTC, now in its sixth year.

Visual learning: 15-year-old Yuan Li learns new words on his tablet with his teacher Dharshinie Vimalanathan.
Visual learning: 15-year-old Yuan Li learns new words on his tablet with his teacher Dharshinie Vimalanathan.

No interaction

Other parents have been equally vocal about the inadequate facilities and services available at some national schools.

Angela Tan* says that her autistic son, who is attending a national primary school in Putrajaya, is kept in a separate class throughout the day.

“They are expected to interact with the other students during recess but in reality, this does not happen,” says Tan, adding that the other students feel awkward in the presence of special needs students and tend to avoid them.

Tan says she still sends her son John* to a national school as he has mild-autism and is able to cope, when and if lessons are conducted in class.

She says John who has a Kad OKU (orang kurang upaya) or disabled person’s card is enrolled in a national school thus he is entitled to an allowance of RM150 from the government every month.

Malaysians with special needs are entitled to the allowance so long as they are in government or government-aided schools (from preschool to matriculation) on condition that they are not receiving financial aid from other organisations.

Housewife Aminah Razali* claims that her daughter hasn’t gained much academically because of the lackadaisical attitude of the teachers in her class.

They have no proper training and lack compassion when handling their charges, she adds. Her sentiments were shared by Saras Mohan*, a professional who gave up a well-paying job to devote her time to teaching and caring for her son,

Businessman Hafiz Othman* claims that the ministry’s framework for special needs education is “very weakly implemented or completely non-existent” in some schools.

He wonders how his special needs son can move forward without a formal education system in place for such children.

Let's write: A teacher helping a pupil write out a missing letter on the board.
Let’s write: A teacher helping a pupil write out a missing letter on the board.

He also says that these students are lumped into one special needs classroom, even if they have different competency levels.

“There is no such thing as special needs education for Year One, Year Two or Year Three. How do you expect teachers to teach students with different levels of competence when they are all placed in one class?” he asks.

However, a teacher from Seremban has come to the defense of her colleagues.

Anita Mariadass* says the special needs teachers in her school are committed towards giving their charges the best.

“Those who are capable are allowed to sit for examinations and two of them have even been selected as prefects,” she adds.

One thing about the local education system that grates the nerves of stay-at-home-mom Cassandra Peters* is the requirement for them to learn another language apart from their mother tongue.

Patriotism aside, Peters questions how these children, who already face speech problems, can be expected to learn a new language, when even one language is proving to be a great challenge for them.

“When it comes to education, these children require a different approach and learning tools,” explains Yap.

Simplifying lessons

She says that lessons need to be simplified to their level in order for them to fully absorb what they need to learn.

Mohan says she understands the plight of the other parents, and although autistic children can disrupt the classroom, normal children are just as disruptive, if not more.

“This cannot be an excuse to exclude them from mainstream classrooms,” she says, adding that everyone should be more accepting and understanding.

Brain teaser: A special needs teen works on a puzzle with the help of his teacher.
Brain teaser: A special needs teen works on a puzzle with the help of his teacher.

She also says that in the long run, having these children in mainstream classrooms could prove beneficial to their classmates as the exposure ultimately makes them more caring and understanding towards people with special needs — a situation she has seen for herself when she was living in Australia for a year.

“These children want to be educated. Education is not about career building and making money, it is also to have a purpose in life.

“They do not have to undergo examinations to prove they are educated,” Mohan says. She shares the time when she went to find out about homeschooling for her son at the Education Ministry.

“I explained the situation to the officer and he sincerely told me that it would be better for my son if he is homeschooled,” she says.

She points out that this is a clear sign that even ministry officials understand the true situation of special needs education in the country.

Early intervention

Yap believes the medical community should also take a stronger stand in ensuring these children are diagnosed early so that they can benefit from early detection and intervention.

She adds that parents who sense that something is amiss about their toddler should consult a doctor or paediatrician to see if their concerns are valid.

She reiterates that parents must realise that ignoring the condition will not make it go away.

Yap: Her frustration at failing to find a school with a comprehensive range of therapies for her autistic son was what led her to set up the centre.
Yap: Her frustration at failing to find a school with a comprehensive range of therapies for her autistic son was what led her to set up the centre.

“It is better to diagnose a child sooner than later as early intervention is always best,” says Yap.

Even if parents accept a child’s condition, medical help, therapy or any other form of intervention can be costly — that is, if it is done regularly for effective results.

Mohan says that the government should consider hiring occupational and speech therapists for schools with special needs students on a permanent basis.

“Salaries for the therapists and teachers should be attractive and they won’t be so quick to jump ship,” she says, adding that most parents cannot afford to send their special needs child for private therapy that is expensive.

“If schools overseas can have these specialists on board, why can’t Malaysia?” she asks.

“The Government must have have the commitment to channel funds into special needs education.”

Yap hopes that the government would invest in more purpose-built special needs schools to enable these children to become contributing members of society.

Mohan has a few suggestions on how the government can improve special needs education and the integration of special needs students into the mainstream classroom.

For a start, the Education Ministry must invest more money in hiring teacher aides for such special needs students in mainstream schools.

She says it has to be a one-to-one teacher aide-to-student ratio as these children need closer monitoring.

“Teachers do not need to feel intimidated by the presence of a teacher aide, as they are trained to be in the background and not interrupt classroom activities.

“The number of children with learning disabilities is rising.

“The Government should incorporate new policies into the national education system for the benefit of the special needs group, instead of just talking about it,” says Mohan.

What is it? Afiq Adam, 7, identifying body parts from the flash card that his teacher Melissa Zu Reenais holding.
What is it ? Afiq Adam, 7, identifying body parts from the flash card that his teacher Melissa Zu Reena is holding.

Last week, StarEducate reported that as of April this year, there are 58,253 special needs students enrolled in Malaysian schools, with only 7,797 students in inclusive education programmes.

The increased number of disabled students in mainstream schools may be due to the Education (Special Education) Regulations 2013, which replaced the previous 1997 regulations.

The new regulations now include children with speech disabilities, physical disabilities and multiple disabilities, compared to those with only visual, hearing, and learning disabilities previously.

*Names have been changed

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