Education for our future – Parliamentary Speech by SPD President

Ms Chia Yong Yong, SPD’s president, delivered a speech in Parliament on 11 July 2018 to support the motion calling the Government to partner with the people to ensure accessible, [...]

Key takeaways:

  • Government is creating an inclusive society for people with special needs
  • Equal opportunities in school benefits children with and without disabilities

Ms Chia Yong Yong, SPD’s president, delivered a speech in Parliament on 11 July 2018 to support the motion calling the Government to partner with the people to ensure accessible, inclusive and lifelong education for all learners. Here is a copy of her full speech.

Thank you, Sir. I declare my interest as President of SPD and board member of SG Enable.

For this speech, I acknowledge SPD, Singapore Association of Occupational Therapists (SAOT) and Dr May Lim Sok Mui of the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) for their professional inputs. Any unpalatable views, however, are entirely my own.

Sir, I support the Motion and I ask for all our children, including children with disabilities and special needs, to be given equal opportunities to education and the necessary support to develop their potential, to thrive in the same environment as their peers, with or without disabilities, and to participate effectively as members of our society.

Singapore’s accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is testament to our country’s commitment to provide an inclusive education for all children and youth, including those with disabilities and special needs.

This commitment is shown in the Government’s resourcing of special education schools (SPED schools) and mainstream schools to support students with special needs and disabilities, and the implementation of compulsory education for children with disabilities and special needs with effect from 2019.

Sir, inclusive education is the right of every child, whether with or without disabilities or special needs.

We are naturally drawn to and congregate with people who, overall, are like us, and who possess qualities that we aspire to have. It is therefore not natural for us to embrace people who are different or who face challenges or difficulties that we do not want for ourselves. It is difficult to be different from the majority. Disabilities and special needs make us different from the majority – the way we look, the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we think. All these make us different in different aspects, and it is difficult for us. Inclusive education is therefore necessary because of differences, and can only succeed by design.

Sir, as we implement inclusive education, I would propose a few fundamental principles to be observed. First, we must be careful not to place the interest of one group of students above the other. The interests of both groups are equally important. Secondly, we must create opportunities for both groups of children to play, learn and grow together. We should to the extent, practicable, remove barriers against children accepting one another.

In respect of the first principle, studies show that children undergoing inclusive education achieve greater progress in reading, Mathematics and general academic performance. They are also given the opportunity to develop meaningful friendships, understand, appreciate and respect individual differences, and prepare for engagement in diversity. Therefore, inclusive education, if prudently implemented, benefits children with and without disabilities.

From the broader and long-term perspective, inclusive education forges a common identity and bonding between our young ones, with and without disabilities or special needs, and inculcates in them important values, all of which will in turn build their resilience and that of our country.

Sir, a common identity and bonding between students with and without disabilities and in special needs is therefore important to Singapore, important to these young ones and can be achieved in various ways.

Firstly, the sharing of common physical spaces – the provision of accessible infrastructure, where children are brought together in common physical spaces, creates opportunities for shared experiences and the sharing of diverse experiences, just like in National Service, and that in turn creates a common bonding.

Sir, the following could be considered: the co-location of special education schools (SPED schools) with mainstream schools – I know we are working on that. The setting of special classes in mainstream schools so students with special needs can spend some of their lessons in special education classes appropriate to them, and also in other classes together with their non-special education peers. Thirdly, of course, which is also what is happening now, the inclusion of students with disabilities or special needs in mainstream schools.

Perhaps, the MOE can also consider a concept of enhancing a common identity through the wearing of the same uniform. So when schools co-locate or where they have sharing of classes, perhaps the students could wear the same uniform. And that way, they feel like they are one and the same, together in the environment that they will grow together in.

The third principle, removing what keeps students apart. The first sub-principle is to increase their independence. When we broadly categorise school activities into learning, self-care and school-leisure, it becomes apparent that children with handwriting difficulties, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, social and emotional issues, and so on, will find difficulties engaging in these school activities. Such difficulties will create dependency on teachers and classmates, and will impede the performance to the full potential of the child.

In addition, the dependency on teachers and classmates could result in the child being perceived as a source of nuisance, annoyance, or disruption. If we drop a pen, we can pick it up rather easily. So, it is understandable that we may be annoyed if we have to repeatedly pick up a pen for a student or a classmate.

The difficulties in engaging in school activities are intimidating, but not insurmountable. The use of assistive technology, environmental modification, application of principles of Universal Design for Learning and life/social skills development can overcome or ameliorate the difficulties. However, expertise in these areas lies outside that of our teachers. It is not reasonable to expect teachers to be occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, IT experts, social workers and counsellors, all at once.

And yet, the current support system to students in these respects is limited by structural and funding constraints. So, we have limited access to occupational therapists because it is on an ad hoc and time-limited basis. Organisations like SAOT and SPD that provide a suite of relevant professional services to support schools are not often called upon.

To increase the level of independence of students with disabilities or special needs, the suite of professional support services, on whatever basis, should be accessible to students on a continuing, sustained and sustainable basis. I therefore propose that the MOH, MOE and MSF collaboratively review the support and funding structures accordingly.

Secondly – facilitating learning. Sir, each of us learns differently, regardless of whether we have special needs or not. We may facilitate learning in three ways: through the adoption of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in which teachers and educators are guided in the development of flexible learning curriculum which caters to the individual learning differences of students, whether with or without disabilities or special needs. For example, instead of delivering an essay, students may be assessed on a video produced by them. And the UDL framework accommodates students regardless of needs, right from the start.

Secondly, to be open to the development of bespoke curriculum that caters to the abilities of the children, taking into consideration their disabilities or special needs. So, we base the curriculum on the national curriculum, but modify that according to the abilities or disabilities of a child. And we issue the certifications for the completion of the courses accordingly.

Thirdly, we could work on the better adoption of technology through the use of real-time, interactive, direct-to-classroom virtual learning. We could also use mainstream voice-to-text or text-to-voice technology for a child who is unable to type or not able to see or not able to hear. This technology can empower them to do their homework, to hear a book, even to do their examinations. These are a few examples. If you would like to know more, please visit Tech Able.

Sub-principle three: involving the whole school. Inclusive education requires a Whole-of-School approach. In Australia, school-level good practices include adjustments to cultures, policies, and practices, development of support structures, regimes of funding support, and the provision of and access to equitable learning opportunities. In class, differentiating curriculum or alternative curricula, application of universal design, use of information technologies and individual education plans are applied for students.

Closer to home, Mayflower Primary School. The school enrolled six deaf students this year and it undertook systemic and infrastructural changes to accommodate them. In addition, the cultural change in the school shows that it takes a whole school to make the students with disabilities feel welcome and accepted.

The final sub-principle: acceptance. Inclusive education turns very much on acceptance by Singaporeans of persons with disabilities and special needs. Inclusive education requires parents of children without disabilities and special needs to agree and encourage their children to make friends with children with disabilities, to allow children with disabilities and special needs to attend school with them.

Based on the survey results of the Lien Foundation Inclusive Attitudes Survey in 2016 and the findings from a series of surveys in 2016 by the National Council of Social Service, although seven out of 10 Singaporeans support inclusive education, only half of the parents surveyed are comfortable to let their children sit next to a child with disabilities.

It also requires educators and policy makers to be bold, affirming that education goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge to the inculcation of values, the most basic of which is the respect for the dignity and potential of another human being, and by so affirming, to walk the talk.

Based on the same survey findings, half of the children with special needs had difficulty enrolling in mainstream preschools because of their special needs. I understand the MSF is taking action to resource preschools and I applaud that. But consistent with these findings, the findings on mainstream primary enrolment is that half of the parents of children with special needs consider it a success if their children can get into mainstream primary school.

Inclusive education requires members of the public to accept people with disabilities and children with disabilities. Based on survey findings, whilst 64% of Singaporeans are willing to share public spaces with people with disabilities, they are not willing to interact with them.

All these mindsets will filter down to the young souls of our children. Unless we change, our children cannot be any better.

So, I ask that we all work together. And parents of children with disabilities, I ask that you do not give up. Do not give up on your children. Your struggles may be phenomenal, but you do not have to walk alone because there are many Singaporeans who will walk with you.

In my concluding remarks, Sir, I want to say again that it is difficult to be different from the majority. Our disabilities and special needs make us different from the majority. And the differences are accentuated when we are placed in environments that are suited to the majority.

In a short story written by HG Wells, “The Country of the Blind”, a fully sighted mountaineer named Nuñez loses his way and finds himself in the “Country of the Blind”. It is an unusual village with windowless houses and a network of paths, all bordered by kerbs. He thinks, that in the “Country of the Blind”, the One-Eyed Man is King. He thinks he can rule them. The villagers cannot however understand the concept of sight because they live in darkness. In due course, he falls in love with his employer’s daughter but he is not allowed to marry her, unless his eyes are removed.

How does the story end? It depends on the version that you want to read.

But we learn that the differences arise from different perspectives. In the Country of the Blind, who is the person with a disability? Who is the misfit? Who is the one who needs accommodation?

We can all work together and turn differences and different perspectives into positive effect, only if we hear each other and be prepared to push frontiers unfamiliar to us.

Sir, I stand before the House as an example of a person with a disability who has benefited from mainstream education. You asked two important questions just now. The first: who is the most important teacher in our lives, and which is the most important school? I am blessed to say that I have had many teachers who made that difference because they did not treat me as inferior to a child without disability. They accommodated my disability but they treated me the same. So, when I did not do my homework, I was punished. When I talked too much, I was punished. But I was like any other child. It was not always easy; there were times when I felt like a burden. I am sure there were many times my friends felt like I was a nuisance. But you know what, we grew up together. We did not think we had a choice, we stuck together and we grew up together. It got easier when I went to University. So Primary school, Secondary school, PLMGS. My principal was here yesterday, she was one of those who accommodated me.

And I want to say this: that mainstream education, Sir, what I went through is what I think is an opportunity we should give to every child. I urge all Members to do and to work together for every child because every child matters. Sir, I support the Motion.