Council: Country’s education system not kind to children with special needs

The Star

SIBU, 11 JUNE 2013 - The National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC) claimed that children with special needs in the country are denied access to inclusive education.

In a press statement, it said these children were struggling through an education system that marginalised them on the basis of their disabilities. NECIC highlights the plight of some of these children by recounting their real-life stories. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Ibrahim’s story

Ibrahim is a delightful boy who has autism, with difficulties in communication and social interaction. Most children like him have normal IQ and the potential to succeed in school. He is currently in Form One in a regular government school.

Unfortunately, Ibrahim is repeatedly misunderstood by teachers and peers.

They keep saying that he is inattentive and does not focus on the teacher and his studies. Hence he receives demerits and is sometimes physically punished (caned), despite repeatedly writing to the school and explaining his situation to his class teachers since primary school.

Recently the school authority referred him to the Paediatric Specialist Clinic, requesting that Ibrahim be registered as a handicapped person, so that he could be transferred to a special class.

It is important to note that Ibrahim was placed 130th out of 240 in the entire Form One examination. Out of sheer frustration, the council sarcastically requested the school to send all the children who scored lower than Ibrahim (110 of them) to be registered as handicapped person, before it considered registering him as such.

Murali’s story

Murali is a cheeky young man with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). DMD is a muscle wasting condition, affecting boys around five to seven years of age, with progressive muscle weakness.

Most DMD children need to use wheelchairs by the age of 12, and they die around the age of 18-25.

Despite knowing Murali’s future, the parents have worked hard to ensure a reasonably good quality of life for him, and that his needs are met both at home and in school.

This has meant carrying him into class, buying the aids he requires and taking him to the toilet at school.

Recently, Murali sat for his PMR. The council wrote to the Education Department requesting that he be given a little extra time as his hand muscles had also been affected. He was no longer able to lift up his arms, and his ability to write had been impaired.

Despite these difficulties Murali scored 3As and 4Bs in the PMR. This was indeed remarkable, considering the sad fact that the invigilator refused to grant him extra time. Worse still, when Murali needed to go to the toilet assisted by his parents, the invigilator refused, and Murali wet himself during the examination.

It is hard to understand such uncaring attitude, but look at the unyielding spirit of this child! Imagine what results he could have achieved if he had been supported just a little. Often the rationale behind the refusal to help is, we have to be fair to every child although a child like Murali does not have any fair chance to start with.

Amanda’s story

Despite being born with Down Syndrome, five-year-old Amanda is functionally better than many children her age. She can read and write in two languages and out-performs her kindergarten classmates academically. You may wonder how this happened. Well, Amanda has teachers who allow her mother to sit in and support her learning. The problem is how this will work out when its time to move on to primary school.

What Amanda needs is a system that will take into account her learning needs, support her, and include her in every sense of the word. In order words, she needs an inclusive system.

This may mean being in a class with a low student-teacher ratio which is able to provide better personal attention to individual students. It would be ideal to have the support of a teacher aide or else allowing Amanda’s mother to be in the classroom. The reality is that few schools offer such support.

Educating children with special needs in segregated settings contradicts the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 which stipulates that these children shall not be excluded from the general education system on the basis of disabilities. The recent National Education Blueprint clearly reiterates an inclusive education policy for children with special needs.

Regrettably, the implementation of such an inclusive policy creeps along at an eligible pace. As our stories illustrate, just a little support would have gone a long way in helping these children realise their true potential.

Ibrahim, Amanda and Murali are not alone, there are many other children with similar special needs. Helping or pitying one or two of these children with intermittent financial gifts won’t help much. They really need a system that is supportive of their special needs.

NECIC wants to close on a more positive note by telling the success story of another child, Sarah, which illustrates how easily a supportive school environment can be created.

Sarah is currently in primary six in a regular primary school. She has a normal IQ, is reasonably functional, but has autism. However, she does have social impairment and does not fully appreciate all the social situations she is faced with. 

So what makes the difference? Sarah’s headmaster is a gem. As soon as he becomes aware of Sarah’s condition, the headmaster rallied support around her. 

Teachers and classmates are also made aware of her needs, helping her with the daily routine of school life. Sarah has found a home in this school and is doing well academically.

There are teachers and headmasters like Sarah’s in our education system but they are always not supported well by their peers.

The country needs countless more such individuals to cope with the many children that should be in the system. NECIC stresses that it is not the child with special needs who need to change; rather it is the system and the teachers who surround these children who need to change.

It also says the education system must progress towards the inclusion of all children, with different abilities and needs, so that they will be accepted fully as part of society.
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