SINGAPORE: Great strides have been made in encouraging and promoting inclusiveness in the community, but Singapore still has “some way to go in truly walking the talk”, Member of Parliament Rahayu Mahzam said on Wednesday (Jul 11).
“Our society is not yet able to truly view persons with disabilities as an equally valued member of the community," she said as she recounted a radio talk show she heard.
A caller to the show felt that parents of children with special needs are in denial and want to believe that their children are normal, so they insist that their children be in mainstream schools when they actually should be taught elsewhere.
Ms Rahayu had earlier revealed that her son Ayden, who was born in April 2017 has Down's Syndrome.
“I CRIED MY EYES OUT THAT AFTERNOON”
Hearing the caller's comment, she said it felt that children like her son “will always be seen as a burden, that they should be put in appropriate places".
“Honestly, I understood where the gentleman was coming from,” Ms Rahayu said. “The challenges faced by teachers in such settings are real and we need to deal with these challenges.”
“But the caller’s solution to the problem offended and hurt me as a parent. His tone and the curt manner in which he declared his views reflected how he felt about children who are different.
“To me it felt like a rejection,” she said.
“I cried my eyes out that afternoon,” added Ms Rahayu.
She was speaking on a motion titled “Education for Our Future”, moved by five Nominated MPs. The motion calls on the Government to partner with the people to ensure accessible, inclusive and lifelong education for all learners.
"I believe that we can review and build our education system so as to change perceptions, normalise disabilities, so that people can appreciate that persons with special needs are simply differently abled and are of no lesser value than any other member of society,” Ms Rahayu said.
The house agreed to her proposal that the motion include the following words:
“By building an education system that gives each student the best possible support and the opportunity and motivation to excel, recognises ability and talent in every student, and offers development paths suited to their unique strengths and interests, enables Singaporeans to improve our lives, paying special attention to students from vulnerable families, and becomes a platform to bring our young together, to build an inclusive and united Singapore.”
ENHANCING INCLUSIVENESS IN EDUCATION WILL “BRING GREAT BENEFIT TO SINGAPORE”
While society is now also more open and accepting of people with special needs, she added that a “quick sensing of the current environment” suggests that it is still not completely comfortable with them.
Citing statistics from an attitude study conducted by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) in 2015, Ms Rahayu noted that the public viewed those with disabilities less favourably than those without a disability. They also, she said, had less favourable attitudes towards those with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder.
Ms Rahayu stressed that enhancing inclusiveness in the education system will bring great benefit to Singapore as a whole. For one, she said that fully embracing people with special needs within the community will create opportunities for people to be more caring and compassionate.
There is, she said, also great future economic value in equipping children with special needs with the necessary skills so they can be independent.
“If we intervene early, in schools, we give them the necessary skills and prepare them for the future, there is a greater chance that they would graduate school and join the workforce,” she explained. “If they can work well, be independent and contribute meaningfully towards the economy, less resources need to be spent on support structures or schemes when they are adults.”
To that end, she made several suggestions on how to enhance the education landscape.
These include an integrated education system and school setting, where children with and without special needs learn and play within the same setting, but in different pathways as well as improving the profession and career pathway of special education teachers.
“I propose that these teachers come under the purview of the Ministry of Education like their peers in mainstream schools so that they would have access to the same salary scales, as well as career opportunities,” she said.
She also proposed a review of the administration of school curriculum for both mainstream and special education schools.
THERE WERE TIMES WHEN I FELT LIKE A BURDEN: CHIA YONG YONG
The topic was also brought up by Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong, who highlighted the importance of acceptance by Singaporeans of those with disabilities and special needs.
In an emotional speech, Ms Chia said that inclusive education requires parents of children without disabilities or special needs to agree to allow their children to attend school and make friends with children with disabilities and special needs.
Recounting her own personal experience as a person with a disability who has benefited from mainstream education, Ms Chia said that she was blessed to have many teachers who have made a difference because they did not treat her as one who is inferior to a child without a disability.
These teachers, she said, accommodated her disability, but treated her the same. “So when I did not do my homework, I was punished, and when I talked too much, I was punished. But I was like any other child,” she said.
“It wasn’t always easy, and there were times when I felt like a burden, and I’m sure there were many times my friends felt like I was a nuisance,” she added.
“But you know what? We stuck together and grew up together.”
“What I went through is an opportunity we should give to every child,” she said.
Her words drew a response from Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah, who affirmed in her speech that inclusivity is an area that will continue to be an important part of MOE’s work.
She stressed that Ms Chia is “definitely not a burden".
“In fact, she is very much a blessing,” she said. “Her disability, or rather, special ability, has enabled her to give this House insights and perspectives that we would otherwise not have had.”
“This has enriched our debate and informed our policy, and her presence here has given us a much more positive contribution,” she added.
“This is the value and the benefit of inclusivity, and of being able to draw on people of different talents and abilities.”