Providing more opportunities and assistance to persons with disabilities has been brought to greater attention in the media recently. It is encouraging that Singaporeans are getting more concerned over the needs of persons with disabilities, perhaps an indication that the society is a step closer to becoming an inclusive one.
Ms Poh Sho Siam, senior analyst of SPD’s advocacy team, shares how early intervention, equal opportunities and mindsets can help students with disabilities excel.
On 30 November 2012, Singapore signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), signalling its commitment towards ensuring that persons with disabilities will be treated equally as everyone else – with dignity, and respect and given access to education, health-care, physical environment and employment.
Education as an enabler
Education is a powerful enabler that can transform lives. With education, persons with disabilities can hope to realise their potentials and equip themselves with the knowledge and skills for an enhanced future.
The importance of early intervention and equal opportunity in education cannot be emphasised enough. Jacqueline Woo is one determined undergraduate who does not give up easily. For her, going to school has never been an easy task. Jacqueline was diagnosed with Generalised Dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that causes her to have strong involuntary muscle movements since she was four. Over the years, her condition fluctuated and robbed her ability to walk, write and talk normally. Nevertheless, Jacqueline maintains an optimistic and cheerful attitude towards life and strives to do well in her studies. She is currently pursuing an arts and social sciences degree at the National University of Singapore.
When Jacqueline was younger, the awareness of early intervention support for children with special needs was only at its infant stage. As a result, the therapy sessions that she underwent were irregular and ineffective. Fortunately, awareness of the importance of early intervention has been growing in recent years. With early intervention programmes, such as the ones conducted by SPD, children with disabilities undergo therapy to improve their motor, cognitive, communication, social and self-help skills at a very young age. These therapy sessions aim to enhance the children’s developmental competencies and prevent or minimise developmental delays. With more opportunities to develop their abilities at an early stage, these children will have higher successes in being integrated into mainstream schools.
Currently, children with disabilities who are unable to attend mainstream schools are exempted from compulsory education. They should have equal opportunities to education, though it need not be limited to mainstream schools. Compulsory education can also take the form of special education or home education. With reasonable support and accommodation, children with disabilities can excel academically.
Accommodation with assistive technology
Besides early intervention, the use of assistive technology (AT) is crucial in helping people with disabilities overcome the limitations of their disabilities and allows them to perform daily activities. As technology progresses, AT is now more advanced and more readily available as compared to the past.
Everyday devices such as computers and mobile phones, now serve as AT devices for people with disabilities. As Jacqueline has difficulties speaking and writing, she e-mails her lecturers when she has questions, submits her assignments electronically (though she has to take a long time to type because of her involuntary muscle movements), and at times, requests for recordings of her lectures.
Although they may have shortcomings and limitations, modern technology has provided a quantum leap for persons with disabilities. More applications (apps) and tools are also being devised for use by persons with disabilities. For instance, apps that can detect sounds such as fire alarms and door bells and translate them into phone vibration and visual message for those with hearing impairment, and navigation apps that help those with vision impairment travel to their destination, have been developed specifically to help people with disabilities.
Accessibility in the school environment and supporting legislations
To help students with disabilities move easily in school, facilities in the campus should be accessible and useable by all students. For Jacqueline who relies on a wheelchair, manoeuvring around the campus can be quite challenging. She tries to minimise commuting by arranging as many classes as she can in a single venue. However, she currently has to rely on her mother to ferry her to other faculties when the need arises.
In countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (US), there are specific laws to protect the interests and rights of persons with disabilities. Government-run agencies govern and provide disability-related services to people with disabilities. Comparatively, Singapore can do more in this area. As there are no laws in Singapore to institutionalise the various arrangements that special needs students require, they are subject to approval on a case-by-case basis. Jacqueline has to explain to different professors at the start of every semester regarding her needs, which is a rather tedious process for her.
Perhaps, more can be done to assist students with disabilities by having some form of guidelines or criteria for the provision of accommodations in school facilities and accessible lesson materials. Take for example in the US, accessibility standards for lesson materials, as well as guidelines for classroom accommodations and modifications, are put in place to assist schools in providing adjustments in instructional activities and various service areas. Mainstream teachers can also be provided with more training to help them understand the needs and types of accommodations required by students with disabilities better.
With the setting up of Disability Support Office (DSO) in public funded tertiary institutions, students with disabilities can look forward to more support through these one-stop offices.
Even though there has been heightened awareness of the needs of people with disabilities in recent years, many may still be unsure of how they can interact with persons with disabilities. Misperceptions and misunderstandings about the capabilities of people with disabilities are still prevalent. Many people with disabilities may have physical limitations but are perfectly capable cognitively. They want to, and can, contribute to the community. Given the opportunities, training and accommodation support such as AT, they can perform effectively.
There is still a need to raise awareness through public education at different levels, like in schools, workplace and within the community. It is especially important to inculcate social acceptance from young. Integrating children of different abilities together will encourage greater acceptance of differences and widen perspectives. Interaction between able-bodied children and those with disabilities at a younger age can facilitate greater understanding and acceptance of those with disabilities.
Winston Wong, a final year undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, who has hearing impairment, felt strongly about misperceptions and stereotypes of persons with disabilities. He shared that when he was younger, the teasing from his classmates affected him greatly. He was also ostracised because of his disability. “I think public education on disabilities is important and we should start with educating people from young. Children are more impressionable and if they are given the proper knowledge and etiquette at an early age, they will grow up to have that value which will in turn make Singapore more inclusive in the future,” said Winston.
Conclusion: Everyone plays a part in building an inclusive society
In the Singapore Budget 2014, the Government announced more help for people with disabilities and families with children with special needs. However, building an inclusive society requires not just the Government’s efforts alone, but the nation’s as a whole. A little more concern and effort to help from everyone will make a world of difference to people with disabilities. “At SPD, we work in partnership with the private and public sectors, other voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and the general public in promoting inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities” said Abhimanyau Pal, Executive Director of SPD. To assist people with disabilities in integrating into mainstream society, SPD conducts an array of programmes that encompasses rehabilitation, education, employment, digital accessibility and social inclusion.
In addition to social acceptance, perseverance and resolution to excel are also key factors to success. Despite the numerous challenges that Jacqueline and Winston face, they work hard and persist through their difficulties. In recognition of their academic excellence, Jacqueline and Winston were awarded the Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Foundation Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities in 2012 and 2013, respectively. For those who face difficulties in life, Jacqueline has a word of encouragement, “Use what talents you wield, stay positive and keep your dreams alive. Glorious triumphs, especially if checkered by failures, shine the brightest.”