The recent success of Singapore’s Special Olympics team shows that children with intellectual and developmental challenges can still make it big in this highly competitive world. They demonstrate to the Singaporean government and to spectators worldwide that they should not be “left behind” and their needs should not stay “invisible.”
After Team Singapore got a hero’s welcome on Sat, Mar 23, when they returned from the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Abu Dhabi, UAE, it has become evident how providing for the special needs of these children can go a long way — not just for them as individuals, but also for their birth country. Team Singapore won four gold, four silver and eight bronze medals at the week-long quadrennial competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Truly, they gave honor to Singapore. But has the Lion City really been good to them?
A closer, harder look at special needs
Some time ago, the focus had been on sustaining learners with physical or sensory impairments.
“Now, it’s to see how we can further support those who have impairments that we do not see,” says Kenneth Poon from the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice. These cover conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“There are many children who in the past would be called “stupid”, “lazy”, or “unmotivated”. Now we understand why many of these children were previously unmotivated to learn. Sometimes, it’s because they cannot access the learning,” says Poon, adding that these kids are not as different from other students as one might think.
Poon also talks about how it is natural to have diverse abilities among members of any group of human beings: “It’s important to understand that special needs are part of the broader variation of human characteristics. Many students might show some of these characteristics and it’s OK! It’s human variability.”
However, he points out that these learners need extra monitoring and assistance when they experience trouble or complexities that get in the way with their learning processes, behaviour, or social interaction in school.
Inclusive society in the eyes of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sketched out his vision of Singapore as an inclusive society.
“Every society has some members with disabilities. How the society treats the disabled, takes care of them, and helps them integrate into the mainstream, reﬂects the kind of society it is. We want ours to be a society that cares for all its members; one that does not ignore the needs of those who are born or afflicted with disabilities.”
Obstacles and challenges to disability-inclusive education
In 2016, survey findings revealed that Singaporeans support the idea of disability inclusion but do not “walk the talk.” Although many Singaporeans believe that it is possible for children with and without disabilities to learn together, only half of those surveyed were comfortable of having a special needs child sitting next to their own child in class. Additionally, only one in 10 Singaporeans is confident of interacting with special needs children.
In 2018, another study indicated that while nine out of 10 early intervention (EI) professionals who work with young special needs children feel that the sector has made huge effort and strides in the last five to ten years, only a small fraction of these professionals think of Singapore as an inclusive society.
These professionals think that there are several obstacles to inclusive education. The biggest barriers include a lack of resources for mainstream school teachers to attend to children with special needs (66%), an education system that places high emphasis on standardised assessments (58%) and insufficiently-trained mainstream teachers (58%).
Has Singapore addressed these hindrances?
Special Educational Needs
The Special Educational Needs (SEN) setting in Singapore has been relatively transformed over the years with the effort of the Ministry of Education (MOE) and various voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) to make special education (Sped) inexpensive, accessible, and of superior value. There have been measures to place and assimilate children with mild SEN in mainstream schools.
Against this backdrop, the MOE (Schools) minister Ng Chee Meng announced in Nov 2016 the inclusion of children with moderate to severe SEN under the Compulsory Education framework which took effect during the 2018 Primary 1 school registration exercise for the 2019 school year: “This is a significant milestone in Singapore’s move towards building a more inclusive society. It is heartening to see that, today, the majority of children with SEN are able to access education in mainstream or Sped schools.
“This move is possible with the strong partnership between the community and government. MOE will continue to work with the VWOs and parents to ensure that learning opportunities are accessible to all Singaporean children who are able to benefit from them.”
In agreement, MOE Minister of State Dr Janil Puthucheary remarked, “We want to make sure that every child benefits from education. This is not something to be taken lightly. It’s not a care arrangement, it’s an education arrangement.
“We want to get to know them and the challenges they face. For example, some have medical conditions so severe, they can’t go to school. We want to make sure we can find places for all the 40 children. And to make sure these places are suitable for them.”
Dr. Victor Tay, the former president of the Association for Persons with Special Needs, said this is a step towards inclusivity.
Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore School principal Koh Ai Lay agreed and said the move also recognises that Sped schools can provide an education that caters to the specific needs of children with SEN: “This would act as an impetus for some parents who may not see the need for an education for their child with special needs. There could also be parents who may be overwhelmed with family issues and not able to give priority to their child’s education.”
While Singapore has a better supply of skilled Sped teachers through the National Institute of Education, Dr. Tay said that one of the challenges is changing society’s perception of being a teacher in a Sped school.
Today, more support
Families of children with developmental needs will have better access to EI programmes starting Apr 1, with new subsidies that will reduce the cost — by more than half, in some cases — of government programmes for most families as well as a broadening of income criteria to allow more to get help.
Two programmes will be added to address these children’s changing needs better. One of the programmes for Under Twos will involve a parent or caregiver’s attendance. The other programme will allow kids who have progressed to attend a mainstream pre-school while receiving better EI professional help.
Sixty million a year – 30% more than the current S$45 million – will be channeled by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) into EI to cover the subsidies and fund the two new programmes. At least 4,500 children and their families are expected to benefit from this.
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee stresses that SEN kids and their families need all the support they can get: “We believe that with good early intervention, targeted early intervention and affordable early intervention, these children stand the best chance to improve their developmental progress.
“We are going to reduce the cost of early intervention by increasing subsidies. On average, parents will see a reduction of on average of 30% to 70% in fees.”
Following the revised subsidies, EI fees will range from $5 to $430 per month, down from $5 to $780 per month currently.
With the government’s thrust on education and its efforts toward social inclusion for all, Singapore’s children with special needs will perhaps no longer be “invisible.”