CHILDREN can grow up to be anything. Some will grow up to be what the general world considers to be “successful” people, while the majority will lead more modest lives — successfully holding down jobs, maintaining a budget, being independent, and contributing to society. Regardless of what their destination ends up being, what any child would hope for is a fair opportunity to make what they will and can of their lives. And for the most part, this requires a fair access to education up to the highest possible level; with limitations being set only by the child, and not the system.
That the initial draft of the Malaysia Education Blueprint had special needs education as only a sub-section of Chapter 4, instead of a chapter in its own right, is an oversight that should not have happened; but it is good to know that the matter will be rectified in the final draft. An estimate two years ago had the number of special needs children in the country at 540,000 — more than five per cent of our child population. But of this number, only 43,142 were in schools that catered to children with special needs. The rest were speculated to have not yet had their disabilities identified, or were kept from school because of shame, poverty or lack of opportunities.
That nearly half a million children may not be in school, or may not be getting the help they truly need to learn, because of their difference in ability, is shameful, and must be rectified not only on paper, but down on the ground. As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Malaysia has committed itself to habilitate persons with disabilities (PWD) to achieve a “full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with persons without disabilities”. Towards this end, preschool education will be made available for PWD children through the 2013 Budget. Indeed, early intervention programmes are crucial for equipping PWDs with socio-emotional skills that they will need to keep on learning to survive in the world.
In addition, efforts must be made to ensure that schools and public infrastructure are disabled-friendly, and policies for enrolling special needs children must change. For, although the Education Ministry provides education for special needs children up to secondary level, only those who are able to manage themselves without aid are taken in. This sidelines those who are less able even further by denying them the opportunity to improve themselves and gain vital living skills. Special needs people should be integrated into society, not set apart.