THE Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games filled Malaysians with pride and joy each time our national anthem was played.
With our Paralympians Bonnie Bunyau Gustin, Cheah Liek Hou and Abdul Latif Romly winning gold medals, and Jong Yee Khie and Chew Wei Lun bringing home silvers, this has been Malaysia’s best achievement at the Paralympics since our first participation in 1972.
My interest in the Paralympics started in the year 2000 when my former secretary Law King Kiew, a paraplegic, represented Malaysia at the Sydney Games in powerlifting.
Just like able-bodied athletes, Paralympians have to go through rigorous and intense training to qualify for the Games.
For the latter, the training could be especially tough, if not tougher, as additional support systems are needed.
As such, I was elated to hear that our government had agreed to honour our successful Paralympians with similar rewards accorded to their Olympian counterparts after the Rio Games in 2016.
It was an important step in the right direction towards removing discrimination, and appropriately recognising the athletes’ hard work and national contribution.
However, despite progress made over the years, the needs of people with disabilities still often get overlooked, be it in sports or other sectors.
I learned from King Kiew that education remains inaccessible to most of them.
A simple example is the Bukit Jalil Sports School, which has far too many steps, thus rendering the wheelchair-bound like herself much difficulty in attending classes.
This situation has certainly been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Statistics estimate that there are between 93 and 150 million children with disabilities around the world.
While many barriers to education existed before the dawn of the pandemic, additional issues have come to the fore, and students with disabilities and special needs now face greater challenges.
For example, when learning software is not optimised, something seemingly simple like the small size of fonts or icons could cause visually impaired students to totally miss out on their studies.
Championing inclusivity Besides government authorities, education institutions can do more for students with disabilities.
One of the most important points is to ensure these students receive an inclusive education, especially if we aim to champion the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities.
The following are some ways we can champion inclusivity and reduce inequality in education, both generally and in facing this pandemic.
First, education institutions can put in place a Students with Disabilities and Special Needs Policy.
This will ensure best practices of care and support are clearly thought out and communicated, and the students are encouraged to have as normal a learning experience as possible.
Teachers in education institutions must consciously prepare appropriate resources to support these students physically and emotionally where necessary.
Continuous thinking, training and upskilling on their part will be needed, such as how to design learning content for remote teaching and learning involving the visually and hearing impaired.
Studies have found that during the pandemic, online classes for some of the students with physical disabilities have turned out to be an advantage, as the difficulty or anxiety of commuting to and from campuses, or navigating within the campuses, has been reduced, if not removed.
Of course, not all students with disabilities share the same sentiments about online classes.
Nevertheless, the shift to online or hybrid learning has created a positive opportunity and this must be adequately harnessed.
Second, institutions can focus on the categories of special students their teachers are trained to work with, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, and visual, hearing and physical impairments.
This will assist parents in planning ahead for their special children’s continued education and development.
Often, parents have trouble finding the right institutions to send their special children. This causes great anxiety and stress.
Clarity promotes confidence and parents are likely to send their children to education institutions that they can trust to do a good job.
Third, education tools such as e-learning platforms for students should meet globally recognised accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
When education institutions make this a requirement within their procurement processes, it will incentivise software developers to be more accessibility-conscious.
We cannot take for granted the value of well-designed websites, digital applications and such. Fostering communityOn a broader scope, having students with special needs in classes, whether virtually or physically, will encourage and foster inclusivity within the community.
It will provide an opportunity for other students to appreciate the special attributes that they do have and can add to the community.
It will also help build acceptable social behaviours, as well as enable us to learn from one another and support each other.
For the community, it will aid in increasing tolerance for differences, teaching other students to be more accepting of people with disabilities, and fostering empathy and connection.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, children with disabilities have a right to be seen, valued and included. I would like to add “having the right to be educated” to the list.
Being committed to the SDGs is one thing; actually advocating the goals is another.
Let us move one step forward in our commitment to quality education and inclusiveness by paving the way for students with disabilities.
Yes, it would mean additional work, time and effort for everyone in terms of providing academic, physical, moral and emotional support, as well as ensuring safety and accessible physical infrastructure.
But I believe it can be done, as long as we put our hearts to it.
Let us do what we can to help make Malaysia a more inclusive society, not just by supporting and cheering people with disabilities when they represent our country at the international stage, but also by showing consistency in this in everyday life.
I am reminded of the following phrase in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaims Malaysia as an “independent state founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people”.
Thus, in the true spirit of Malaysia Day, which was celebrated on Sept 16, let us embrace and cherish our unity in diversity, and might I add in inclusivity, for this is what will ensure the welfare and happiness of all fellow Malaysians.
Prof Dr Elizabeth Lee is the chief executive officer of Sunway Education Group. A veteran in the field of private higher education, Prof Lee is also an advocate for women in leadership.
She has been recognised both locally and internationally for her contributions to the field of education. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.