Singapore, 19 February 2005 – For 9-year-old Mohammad Rifa’i bin Abdul Aziz and his classmates, the school library is a place to go to for interesting books whenever they have some free time. However, for him to get there, Rifa’i has to first undergo an ‘obstacle course’ which includes his finding someone to carry him up to the second level where the library is situated.
Rifa’i has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and uses a manual wheelchair to get around. With no lift or ramp in school, he has to rely on the help of teachers to carry him up to the library. Many times, instead of visiting the library himself, he would pass up the chance to do so, preferring to rely on his friends to help him pick out the books he needs or wants.
Unfortunately for Rifa’i, the library is not the only facility accessible by stairs. He also has difficulty getting to the school’s other facilities like the assembly hall, science and computer labs which are situated at the second and third levels. This is a problem Rifa’i faces as his parents prefer him to go to the nearest school to home, which does not have full facilities for the physically disabled.
To find out the level of integration of physically disabled students studying in mainstream schools, The Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) conducted a focus group discussion in January this year. Eight physically disabled students under the SPD Education Programme and their caregivers participated in the exercise. The students, aged between 8 and 19, were enrolled in primary to ITE levels and were all wheelchair users.
The discussion covered four main areas:
– Extent to which the school’s physical environment supports usage by physically disabled students,
– Level of participation of the students outside of academic activities
– Quality of relationship they experience with others in the school environment
– The support they see SPD as providing to help level the playing field for the disabled students
Many mentioned difficulty in using the library and science lab in school due to the high table tops and hence are excluded from taking part in experiments. Narrow passageways and doors to special rooms like labs and libraries are also difficult to handle for a disabled student, so many avoid such facilities altogether. The problem becomes more acute in emergencies like a fire.
Owing to their disabilities, many are also excluded from PE, CCA and excursions. A majority of the participants report having to sit out PE classes in a corner.
Further to this, a survey was conducted for the same purpose amongst the physically disabled students under the SPD Education Programme. Over 70 forms were sent out from which 32 responses were received. Of the respondents, 18 were wheelchair users studying in mainstream schools.
Among the wheelchair users, 56% could use the school library without difficulty, while 41% had difficulty using the science lab. 82% seldom participate in PE and almost 60% get excluded from their schools’ organized outings and excursions. The problem did not seem to extend to non-wheelchair users. Based on previous press reports, there are at least 180 physically disabled students studying in mainstream primary and secondary schools here .
Because of the limited opportunities in school, close to 90% of the wheelchair users would like to see SPD organizing more enrichment programmes for physically disabled students.
To address the needs of the students, SPD has remodeled the SPD Education Programme to a more comprehensive, structured and systematic one to complement the school’s programme.
The new features of the revamped Programme include a full-service learning and development centre and care management programme. Students will also be able to participate in developmental programmes, arts and drama courses, sports & recreational activities, and also receive tuition and social service support like mentoring and befriending. The Programme will continue to give our educational bursaries to students with physical disabilities studying in mainstream schools and students with physically disabled parents.
The new SPD Education Programme would provide a structure where students can learn, nurture and contribute to society again, a path which is not unlike the one Liew Chong Heng undertook.
20-year-old Chong Heng has been under the SPD Education Programme since 1994. Since coming under the programme, he has been an annual recipient of the award and has attended various enrichment courses organized under the Programme. SPD has recently helped him purchase a special powered wheelchair with headrest which costs over $7,000 and is helping him to apply for full sponsorship of the equipment.
In 2003, Chong Heng helped in the PEBBLES PDA Project, a collaboration between the SPD Specialist Assistive Technology Centre and Carnegie Mellon University, in testing out a software that would enable people with limited hand functions to take notes more efficiently. Currently, the first year Information Management System student with SMU is also actively participating in the SMU BP-Mentoring Scheme.
To Chong Heng, the process of learning, growing and giving back helps to further develop the individual. “Many people are more concerned with what they can get from enrolling under a programme. What they may not see is that in giving back and contributing, they get to practice what they have learnt. In the process they get to learn other lessons which cannot be gotten from books or courses. It completes the learning process and makes the learning more dynamic and meaningful.”
The programme was unveiled at the SPD Education Programme Awards Presentation Ceremony 2005 held on 19 February at 2005. At the event, Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister of Manpower and Second Minister for Education, gave out close to $257,000 to some 250 students with physical disabilities and students whose parents are disabled and studying in mainstream schools.
We firmly believe that the Ministry of Education, schools and teachers have done their best to facilitate integration in mainstream schools, and we are certain they will continue to do so,” said Ms Chia Yong Yong, Chairperson of the SPD Bursary Award Committee. “…we recognize that making the school environment, with its complex infrastructure and varied activities, a completely disabled-friendly one cannot be done overnight. Therefore, it is vital that SPD complements the schools’ efforts and fills up the learning and development gaps, especially where accessibility is an issue.”
“I’m looking forward to SPD’s new activities and courses,” said Mohammad Rifa’i. “I hope we can have more computer courses so that I can do better in my school work. A drama course would also be fun!”