The gap between policies and implementation has failed those with learning disabilities.
By this year, 30% of special needs students are supposed to be enjoying inclusive education. By 2025, it should be 75%, according to the Malaysia Education Blueprint. But reality bites.
For a sizeable number of students with mild forms of learning difficulties, gaining a foothold in the mainstream education system is akin to swimming with their legs tied. The odds are stacked against them.
The Orang Kurang Upaya (Less Abled Person) card issued by the Welfare Department enables persons with disabilities access to financial aid and services, but it also denies them inclusive education.
Although the Persons With Disabilities Act 2008 decries discrimination, there is no penalty for it. So legal recourse is not an option for families. Ultimately, it is the school principal who decides if a special needs child will be allowed to enroll in school.
Pressed for time and compounded by the demands teachers face in meeting their Key Performance Index, students who need more than a little nudge to keep their grades and behaviour up may be sidelined in favour of those who excel academically and socially.
Consequently, many languish under the “Special Education Integrated Programme” (SEIP), which in itself is a misnomer because participants in this programme are segregated from mainstream students, even though they may share the same school compound. According to the Education Ministry, 99.2% or 47,994, of learning disabled students in Malaysia are in the SEIP.
“The current education programme is failing children with learning disabilities,” says National Early Childhood Intervention Council president Datuk Dr Amar Singh. They include slow learners, those who have autism spectrum disorder, and those who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, Down Syndrome, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
There are families with children who are verbal and have near normal IQ but lack social skills and may have sensory issues that manifest as behavioural problems. Some opt out of the SEIP to enrol their children in private schools that offer inclusive education, despite the hefty fees. But what about families who cannot afford such schools?
It is a serious concern considering that between 10% and 16% of children born in the country have some form of disability and behavioural issues, notes Dr Amar who also heads the Paediatric Department in Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun, Ipoh.
Drawing on his vast experience in diagnosing children and training doctors, as well as his active participation in community-based initiatives since 1978, Dr Amar observes that “The size of the problem is huge. It will take a determined effort to meet the need.
“But we must not despair,” he told the participants at a recent forum entitled “Working Together To Make A Difference: Addressing Policies, Services And Support For Children With Special Needs”, organised by by Dika Kolej, which specialises in Early Childhood Education.
At the forum, Pemandu’s (Performance Management Delivery Unit) director of education Tengku Azian Shahriman concedes that while strides have been made in special needs education, “structural issues remain”.
Bureaucracy remains a major stumbling block, resulting in a yawning gap between policies and implementation.
She says to ensure the target for inclusive education is met, Pemandu will be setting up labs to look into revising the KPIs for teachers to include variables that take into account inclusive education.
While the role of Pemandu is merely catalytic, as Azian stresses, there is no denying much progress has been made in recent years in meeting the needs of the learning disabled with the agency in the driver’s seat. (See story above.)
The three government departments that are tasked with managing the affairs of people with special needs, Education, Health, and Welfare, over the years have been virtually in a state of inertia for several reasons, notes Dr Amar.
Doctors are not well versed in learning disabilities while the demand for schools and facilities outstrips supply. The quality of special needs teachers is poor and welfare-sponsored community-based centres are found to be wanting.
“The medical student’s curriculum for learning disabilities is virtually non-existent and even the most qualified doctors, be they in private or government hospitals, have poor diagnostic skills and often dismiss parental concerns,” he asserts.
The culture of a top-down approach, the lack of consistent quality services across the board, and the absence of integration among the Health, Education, and Welfare departments are alienating the very people who need help most.
Given such a scenario, it is not surprising to find parents forming alliances through support groups. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private learning centres are stepping in to fill the void.
While critics may question their motives and quality of services, at the very least families have choices now.
The fledging collaboration between the private sector and NGOs to create job opportunities for the learning disabled is to be applauded too.
The shift from charity-based to family-focused approaches and empowering the learning disabled community by making its members aware of their rights is the way forward. It is time the bureaucratic giants step up.
NEXT PAGE: Chance To Learn And Earn
The opportunity to further their studies give special needs adults a shot at independence.
Training to be a barista has given 22-year-old Tan Mei Yee a sense of purpose in life.
“If I hadn’t been given the opportunity to learn and earn, I’d probably be spending most of my time at home doing nothing,” says Tan who struggled academically and socially in school.
The aspiring barista is among the 22 from her class last year who has benefitted from Pemandu’s (Performance Management Delivery Unit) initiative to finance courses designed specifically for students with special education needs (SEN) in reputable private higher education institutions.
Since 2013, Pemandu has spent RM2.23mil to fund students in the programme. It hopes this programme will encourage private institutions to offer courses for SEN students who are prepared to pay fees to learn.
This buying-of-seats programme is to enhance the quality of education and create job opportunities for special need students by partnering with the private sector, says Pemandu’s director of education Tengku Azian Shahriman. All too often, students who need special education – including those with autism, dyslexia, Down Syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder – fall through the cracks of the mainstream education system with very little prospect of employment.
Sixteen of the students in the pioneer batch completeda course in Food and Beverage while another 20 obtained certificates in Information and Communications Technology with Sunway International Business and Management.
The following year, 33 graduated with diplomas in patisserie and 38 certificates in Food and Beverage with the Berjaya University College of Hospitality (BUCH), and another 41 received certificates in Pastry Production with Sabah-based Asian Tourism International College (ATIC). This year another 42 students are pursuing courses with BUCH and ATIC.
BUCH and Sunway are now offering vocational courses to fee paying special needs students.
The Education Ministry has also started its own buying-of-seats programme. As of last year, 400 students have undergone courses such as electric and motor maintenance, tailoring, and baking. The ministry plans to recruit another 590 students this year.