Strengthen the education system for children with special needs

THE the main political coalitions have, to date, presented their manifestos with the respective enumerations of distinctive and less distinctive policies to appeal to voters and gain maximum support in what is a first-past-the-post electoral system for the upcoming 15th general election .

Many of these proposed policy recommendations should be appealing and appealing to the rakyat, whether they are seasoned voters who may have a tinge of cynicism due to their experience of broken promises in the past, or newbies.

All manifestos focus on “typical” issues (such as cost of living, employment opportunities, public transport, etc.) as well as emerging issues (such as food security, ageing, welfare of workers in the gig economy, etc.). Many of the issues are bread-and-butter stuff that ranks at the top of most voters’ concerns and worries.

However, the fact that minority social groups, such as those who are distinguished by their physical or mental/psychological characteristics, which set them apart from “normal” society and who are marginalized, continue to be neglected by political coalitions is also relevant. crucial importance. in their quest for votes.

Perhaps a hybrid proportional representation system should be considered? And this is not as relevant as the lack of specific and targeted policy attention and space on Special Needs Education (SEN) or otherwise Special Education (SPED) for children with special needs in Malaysia.

No one should be left behind, especially as we seek to evolve into a nation that is more developed and sophisticated and, therefore, caring and inclusive in all respects.

However, to be fair, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) manifesto highlighted the need for an agency for people with disabilities (PwD). Not only that, the coalition will re-implement its “zero rejection” policy for students with a focus on the inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream schools.

As for Perikatan Nasional’s manifesto, it addressed the improvement of Community Rehabilitation Centers (CRCs) and the introduction of individual transition plans for students with special needs after school life.

Surprisingly, Barisan Nasional’s manifesto did not address the needs and welfare of children with special needs at all.

What exactly is meant by a child with special needs? The American Psychological Association defines a child with special needs as a person who requires special educational attention because they have difficulties or disabilities in the intellectual, physical or emotional dimensions and aspects that affect their learning abilities.

While persons with disabilities have received particular attention in Malaysia, there has been a certain lack of sensitivity and empathy towards children with learning or intellectual disabilities and associated behavioral delays. This can be attributed to a general misunderstanding of the issue and the situation (as a concrete framework), at the risk of oversimplifying.

In turn, learning disabilities are neurological or cognitive diseases (i.e., related to the brain as the source and “driver” of mental and intellectual performance) that can be characterized by significant delays in learning acquisition and training of specific academic skills (eg language) or practical skills (eg basic carpentry).

The performance of these children will be particularly substandard or below normal, for example. The list of neurodevelopmental disorders includes dyslexia, Down syndrome, autism (eg Asperger’s syndrome), cerebral palsy, epilepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette’s syndrome and any other permanent neurological disorder and regressive behavior, for example speech disorders. At the same time, there are cases where children suffer from sensory disabilities such as visual (sight) and auditory (hearing) defects.

These children need special and distinct care and attention. In other words, SEN goes beyond simply meeting and meeting the physical needs of children with special needs (i.e. active lifestyles’) within the limits of pre-existing constraints.

The latest data on persons with disabilities by age is only from 2017, as maintained by the Department of Statistics. There were 453,258 people with disabilities registered in 2017. Of this total, 157,714 people with disabilities had some form of learning disability, of which 6,803 were under the age of six, 41,224 were between the ages of 6 and 12, 41,152 were between 13 and 18 years old. , and 15,786 were in the 19-21 age group. This represents approximately 104,965 students who needed BEP in 2017.

As is the norm in Malaysia, SEN also extends to people with visual and hearing impairments (“Implementation of Inclusive Education Program for Special Education Need Students with Learning Disabilities in Malaysia”, Siti Rubiyani Omar and Abd Aziz Sulaiman, International Journal of Civilizational Studies and Human Sciences, Volume 1, Number 4, 2018).

According to a report on September 26, 2019, the Ministry of Education had registered a total of 87,574 SEN students as of June 2019. Of this total, approximately 2,492 students are currently in Special Education Schools (SES) as special schools and 68,874 pupils in the integrated program of special education, which falls under mainstream schools with special classes. A total of 967 students were in preschool, 38,710 in primary and 29,197 in secondary.

According to the ministry’s director general at the time, Datuk Dr Amin Senin, there were 16,208 students in the Inclusive Education Program (IEP) – which are mainstream schools that integrate one to five students with special needs into each class.

The breakdown of the total number of IEP students showed that 247 were in preschool, 8,221 in primary schools, and 7,740 in secondary schools.

Amin was further quoted as saying that under the IEP, the numbers increased every year from 2013 to 2018, with the latter seeing an increase of up to 50.5% in SEN student enrollment compared to 9 .6% in 2013.

The then Minister of Education, Dr. Mazlee Malik of the PH administration, implemented the “zero rejection” policy. The policy focused on inclusive access, which has had many positive results in the special needs community.

Nevertheless, we can still imitate our closest neighbour, Singapore, by further improving access and delivery of SEN services.

The Department of Education introduced the Living, Learning and Working in the 21st Century SPED Curriculum Framework in 2012 – which is highly targeted, personalized and flexible based on an effective assessment system aimed at responding to diverse needs of every student with special needs in Singapore. Singapore’s approach aims to ensure successful integration of children with special needs into wider society through SPED schools.

Going forward, although the Malaysian government has implemented various initiatives such as SES, SEIP and IEP alongside the after-school framework in the form of CRC, much more can be done.

Each SEN child has their own unique needs and talents. Not to mention that children born with Savant syndrome, for example, possess exceptional abilities well above average such as the talent for rapid calculation (hypercalculia). The movie Rain Man (1988) comes to mind.

There is a critical need to provide high quality education (i.e. both in terms of the quality of the teaching and learning methods and the materials used) that meets the individualized needs of children with special needs , gradually at each stage of the journey towards full integration and maturation within the wider community (as in Singapore).

The recalibration and reform of the SEN/SPED for children with special needs in Malaysia is one of the first steps that stakeholders need to act on.

EMIR Research recommends the following proposals to further improve SEN/SPED in Malaysia:

1. Establish a comprehensive framework for SEN/SPED – which aims to improve the curriculum and extra-curricular or extra-curricular activities of children with special needs by ensuring that they develop holistically and comprehensively – covering their intellectual, mental , emotional, moral. and physical attributes.

The framework must be detailed, specific and systematic so that targeted and personalized attention and care can be provided to the person with special needs.

It must function, in effect, as the “reference manual” for the development and implementation of policies at the macro level (Ministry of Education and Department of Special Education) as well as at the micro level (school ).

As it stands, neuro-developmental disabilities are already a complex field (not even referring to the broader “gender” of the broader, overarching field of disabilities, which includes physical disorders such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, etc.).

2. Engage with stakeholders such as SEN/SPED private schools – to ensure the best learning and teaching outcomes through cross-sharing and exchange of teaching models and practices.

3. Encourage and strengthen integration with the creation, for example, of “community service” clubs in mainstream schools.

One of the most effective ways to reduce societal barriers among children with special needs is to have “community service” clubs that will focus on after-school activities with children with special needs. This will be part of efforts to include and integrate students with special needs within the wider community.

This will normalize interactions between children with special needs and mainstream peers and adults, which will support social adjustments later in life and provide the foundation to forge and foster stronger bonds and bonds in relationships outside of the classroom. school system.

Our Ministry of Education has always received the lion’s share of allocations from the national budget. The 2023 budget is no different, with RM55 billion (the largest).

Even if a different government comes to power, it is expected that the ministry’s allocation will not be much different next time.

Whoever forms the next government, the Ministry of Education should use the allocation by earmarking investments and increasing expenditures for SEN/SPED in terms of recruitment of teachers and counsellors, infrastructure and of equipment, etc.

Let’s try to do more for our children with special needs.

Jason Lo and Jachintha Joyce are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. Comments: [email protected]