In Vancouver, British Columbia, kids like Josh and Ahmed get a shot at a normal school life, interacting with children without special needs.
VANCOUVER/SINGAPORE: It was “carpet time” at Ferris Elementary School in Vancouver, Canada. A class of seven-year-olds huddled near the whiteboard and begin reading simple passages aloud to start the school day.
Suddenly, classroom teacher Mrs Andrea Argao stopped the Grade 2 class and told them to sing a cheer instead.
“Can we do it a little louder to wake Josh up?” she said.
In the group was Joshua, aged eight, who appeared to be falling asleep.
Upon hearing the cheers, he perked up and sat up with the help of his education assistant, Ms Jaylene Berry. His eyes slowly refocused on the passage the class was reading.
Joshua was not daydreaming. He has Pura syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by moderate to severe intellectual disability, excessive sleepiness and seizures, among other symptoms.
His condition is so rare that there are fewer than 500 identified cases globally – making it a remarkable feat that Joshua is not only in school, but is able to learn alongside his peers.
Joshua is not the only student with special needs in the school.
Down the hall in another classroom, hands shot up in the air when a teacher asked for volunteers to group odd and even numbers together in a maths class.
Instead of raising his hand, seven-year-old Ahmed, a student with autism, grunted loudly and made loud noises.
Neither his teacher nor classmates scoffed at him, but instead used hand signals to “tell” Ahmed to lower his volume. Two students were tasked with grouping the numbers, and Ahmed was chosen to tally them.
Although he has yet to speak and communicates mostly through signalling, that has not stopped Ahmed from taking part in class activities and playing games with his classmates.
In Singapore, children like Josh and Ahmed are more likely to be placed in a special education school instead of a mainstream one.
But in British Columbia – Canada’s westernmost province which includes the city of Vancouver and has a population of almost 5 million – they get a shot at a normal school life, interacting with children without special needs.
Amid the push towards a more inclusive society in Singapore – which includes greater inclusion in schools – we accompanied philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation on a visit to Vancouver for a week earlier this year to get a first-hand look at how schools there have made inclusive classrooms a reality.
FROM ‘INSTITUTIONS’ TO ‘INCLUSION’
About two decades ago, public special education schools were progressively phased out in British Columbia and special education teachers were redeployed to work at the district level, helping schools with the transition to inclusion.
But the journey towards inclusion in schools had been long-fought, tracing back to around 1955, when a small group of families – unwilling to institutionalise their children with special needs – began a civil rights movement.
They protested relentlessly to remove “institutions” for the intellectually disabled and handicapped, even providing classes for the community in their homes and church basements. Forming a provincial network, the movement has now evolved into a non-profit organisation advocating for those with special needs, called Inclusion BC.
Between the 1960s and 1970s, British Columbia’s Education Ministry slowly began integrating children with special needs in schools, but students with severe disabilities were still taught separately.
Those categorised with mild disabilities were taught in the same school, but still in separate classes.
It was not until the 1990s when the provincial government eventually moved to provide equal opportunity and increased support for children with special needs.
The School Act was revised, entitling all school-aged children to a full educational programme, not separated from other students, in their neighbourhood schools.
In 1995, a Special Education Policy Framework for British Columbia was also established, which served to guide the development of legislation for special education programmes and services in British Columbia.
INCLUSIVE EDUCATION IN SINGAPORE: WORK IN PROGRESS
In Singapore, the Government has made strides towards a more inclusive education in recent years, amid calls by Members of Parliament (MPs), organisations and parents of children with special needs.
The benefits of inclusive education – where children of all needs are well-supported to learn in a non-segregated environment, and not just coexist – have been well documented since the 1990s, not least because it imparts to all children the importance of empathy and acceptance. It also enables those with special needs to form a positive sense of self.
“Curriculum is learning and learning is better when you have diversity in the classroom because kids share their experiences and ideas. When you share more ideas and more experiences, kids learn concepts better because they learn (in) different ways,” said Associate Professor Leyton Schnellert from the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education.
In April, a workgroup was set up by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to look at how to better integrate children with learning needs into pre-schools.
For for article, please visit: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/big-read-kids-with-and-without-special-needs-learn-together-11952714