ACCORDING to the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013 to 2025, a series of initiatives will be implemented in three “waves” to ensure more students with special needs are enrolled in inclusive education programmes, and to raise the overall quality of provision for this group.
The first wave, from 2013 to 2015, is geared towards strengthening existing programmes, while the second wave, from 2016 to 2020, focuses on scaling up initiatives and increasing the pool of experts available to support students with special needs.
Now in its third wave, from this year to 2025, the Education Ministry is set to evaluate the initiatives from the first two waves and develop a roadmap for the future.
The aim, the blueprint says, is “to give every child with special needs access to a high-quality and relevant education that is tailored to his or her particular needs, to have every teacher equipped with basic knowledge of special education, and to have 75% of students with special needs enrolled in inclusive programmes by 2025”.
While efforts are being made to achieve the ministry’s objectives, there are still existing challenges faced by stakeholders in the special education landscape in the country.
The concerns raised can be found in three of the five dimensions drawn up in the blueprint in analysing the Malaysian special needs education system.
The first dimension focuses on early identification, intervention and healthcare support. There is still a widespread lack of awareness among parents about the systems, processes and facilities available.
National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) advisor and former chairperson Feilina Feisol said parents of children with special needs are not getting the support system needed.
“As soon as children are diagnosed, you start looking around. Doctors don’t tell you what to do next. There’s information on Google but there isn’t any coordinator or association for parents.
“We now have the Special Education Integrated Programme (SEIP). What if parents don’t know that? So, the child doesn’t go to any taska (child care centre) and come Year One, teachers say they cannot take care of the child. What do parents do then? This is where we are at the moment, ” she said.
She added that provision should be made to set up a special education school or early intervention programme in every city or district.
“A lot of people are still struggling. For example, Selangor is huge. We can’t only have one in Kuala Lumpur and another in Petaling Jaya. We need to have more, ” she said.
The second dimension takes curriculum flexibility, relevance and quality into consideration.
While the ministry has developed a tailored curriculum for blind and deaf students, there is less support for those with learning disabilities such as autism, Down’s Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia.
Taylor’s University School of Education head Dr Logendra Stanley Ponniah said a lot of schools focus on pedagogy but there is very little discussion on the curriculum itself.
“I hear of a diluted curriculum from my colleagues in academia and in practice. For instance, a nine-year-old may be working on kindy material and a 16-year-old on reading and writing, ” he said.
The crux of the matter, he emphasised, is not so much a dilution of the curriculum, but a curriculum that facilitates adulthood.
There is also the issue of a lack of preparation of special needs students for working life.
Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) senior lecturer Dr Grace Annammal Piragasam said parents are now coming forward and advocating for their children’s right for inclusion in employment.
“They’re asking, what’s next for their grown-up children with special needs, particularly those transitioning from secondary school. This is a big issue that the ministry is facing, ” she said.
Third on the dimension is the availability of a sufficient number of well-trained teachers and special needs education specialists.
The ministry’s Special Education Division former director Prof Datuk Dr Yasmin Hussain conceded that there is a lack of these specialists in the country.
“Most of these children need speech-language therapists or pathologists to help them out. We have support in 13 Pusat Perkhidmatan Pendidikan Khas (special education service centres) but it’s still not enough, ” she said.
“Many non-governmental organisations are also looking for these specialists, ” she added.
Adding to these challenges are the disruptions brought on by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which were addressed at a recent webinar held in conjunction with World Autism Awareness Day 2021.
The discussion also included recommendations on the way forward for special education in Malaysia.