Inclusion is an international agenda. It is practiced in both developed and developing countries in the world. In wealthy developed countries (eg United States, Australia) large body of research has highlighted the benefits of inclusion for all students. Inclusion in many developing countries has provided educational alternative for as many children as possible (Lim, L. & Tan, J. 2007).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasizes educational opportunities for the world’s children. It provides that children have a right to education (Art. 28) and children with any kind of disability should have special care and support so that they can lead full and independent lives (Art. 23). The Convention was adopted by Singapore on 2 October 1995 (MCYS, 2003).
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Making Singapore an Inclusive Society
Singapore Prime Minister Lee in his maiden 2004 National Day Rally speech clearly stated the intention of his government to build an inclusive society and envisioned Singapore as a place for its people who can contribute and care for one another as one people and one nation regardless of race, religion and background (Lee, 2004). The following month PM Lee called for more efforts to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream society beginning with the integration of students with disabilities into mainstream schools (Teo, 2004 cited by Lim, Thaver & Slee, 2008).
The Prime Minister continued his promise of building an inclusive society in his second National Day rally speech 2005 and called on everyone to play a part in remaking Singapore as a vibrant, global city that can be proudly called home (Lee, 2005). He also emphasised a first-class education for all (Lee, 2005).
Since PM Lee’s announcements, other ministries supported his vision of a new government by making commitments to make Singapore an inclusive society. Listed below are ministerial speeches from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and Ministry of Education (MOE) reiterating the ministry’s support to make Singapore an inclusive society.
10 March 2005: Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and Senior Minister of State for Trade & Industry (MITI) in his speech on ‘No one left behind’ defined an inclusive society as one ‘giving people with disabilities more opportunities for gainful employment’ so that they were not excluded and could live like everyone else (Balakrishnan, 2005 point 33).
10 November 2005: Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister of State for Education (MOE) in his speech on ‘The School as a Caring Community’ at the International Conference on Inclusive Education affirmed the government support for children with special needs (Gan, 2005).
14 January 2006: Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister of State, Ministry of Education (MOE) and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) as Guest of Honour presenting bursary awards at the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) informed that children with disabilities have been accepted into mainstream schools and disclosed that schools are improving their infrastructure so that their facilities are made accessible to students with physical disabilities (Gan, 2006).
26 June 2006: Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and 2nd Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) gave a speech about an inclusive transport system making Singapore an ‘Accessible City’ and announced the launch of wheelchair-accessible public buses (Balakrishnan, 2006 and LTA, 2006).
2 November 2006: At Singapore’s 11th parliament opening, President S. R. Nathan reiterated its pledge to build a competitive economy and an inclusive society which leaves no one behind (Nathan, 2006).
26 January 2008: Rear Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew, Minister of State, Ministry of Education (MOE) in his speech at the SPD Education Programme Awards Presentation spoke on support for an inclusive school system through ‘many helping hands’ approach, thus making Singapore a ‘more gracious, compassionate and inclusive society’ (Lui, 2008 point 9).
20 October 2011: In his address at the opening of Singapore’s 12th Parliament President Tony Tan stressed the importance of achieving inclusive growth where there are opportunities for everyone (Tan, 2011).
20 October 2011: In the same Parliament seating, PM Lee again spoke of an inclusive society as one where everybody ‘benefits from the progress of the nation’, ‘has a say, a stake and a sense of belonging’ that ‘leaves (sic) no one behind’ (Lee, 2011 point 3-4). With regard to early education, PM Lee said that the government is focused on supporting good quality, affordable pre-school education (Lee, 2011 point 11) and early diagnosis and intervention for preschool children with learning difficulties (Lee, 2011 point 12).
8 November 2011: Mdm Halimah Yacob, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) said that investments in early years education is important for social mobility and achieving inclusive growth. In the speech she outlined three areas of focus in subsidy grant for childcare placement, teacher quality and MCYS training to support implementation of the regulatory early years framework (Yacob, 2011).
Singapore adopts the ‘many helping hands’ approach involving families, communities and the government all playing their part towards an inclusive society (Tan, 2009). In the beginning, special education in Singapore developed haphazardly and was driven by voluntary organisations. Over time the government took over to play a coordinating and monitoring role (Tan, 2009)
History of Special Education in Singapore
The provision of special education dated back in the 1940s in post-war Singapore by organisations providing charitable services for people with physical and sensory disabilities. One of the earliest centres recorded in 1947 was Trafalgar Home for children with leprosy. The British Red Cross Society set up a home for crippled children in 1949 and included education for the deaf two years later. In 1956 the Association for the Blind set up a school. In the following year the Spastic Children’s Association was formed to focus on children with cerebral palsy. The Singapore Association for Retarded Children, later renamed Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) was formed in 1962. Special education in Singapore has since moved beyond physical and sensory disabilities to include intellectual disability (Quah, 2004 and Poon, Khaw & Tan, 2007).
The 1950s were turbulent times in the political history of Singapore. Besides the Voluntary Welfare Organizations (VWOs) hospitals also supported children with disability. In 1958 the Singapore Council of Social Services (SCSS) was set up to bring together all organisations and individuals with interest in community service and social welfare. In 1992 SCSS was restructured to become the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) (Tan, 2009).
Until 1988 special education was operated by the VWOs and funded by NCSS. The government’s stand was that special schools are best run by VWOs as VWOs had a strong sense of mission and their autonomy allowed them greater flexibility to respond quickly to needs and demands (Quah, 2004 and Poon, Khaw & Tan, 2007).
1988 was a turning point when the Ministry of Education (MOE) partnered with NCSS in special education. MOE would provide land for schools and financial support at double the cost of educating a primary school student. With NCSS matching the financial contribution, total education cost would be four times the amount for a primary school student (Tan, 2009).
Local teacher training in special education started in 1984 at the Institute of Education, presently known as the National Institute of Education (NIE) with a 3-year Certificate course in Special Education. When it was re-organised as NIE in 1991, it launched a 2-year Diploma in Special Education and in 2003, Masters programme in Special Education (Tan, 2009).
MOE Support for Special Needs
20 May 2005: Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Minister for Education announced the selection of a pioneer batch of 10 primary schools and 4 secondary schools to receive support for students with special needs with the appointment of Special Needs Officer (SNO) in 2006. By 2010 all primary schools will have a trained SNO to support students with dyslexia. 20 primary schools will get support for autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) with one to three SNOs and 32 secondary schools will also get one to three SNOs for either ASD or dyslexia or both (Shanmugaratnam, 2005).
2. 24 May 2007: According to MOE, SNOs provide additional support in the class and complement the class teachers who are already supporting students with dyslexia or ASD. (MOE, 2007a)
3. 24 May 2007: MOE stipulates the prerequisite qualification of SNOs. Some SNOs may have relevant working experience in working with children with special needs. Applications are also required to have good interpersonal skills and the passion to work with children with special needs. SNOs will undergo full-time Diploma course in Special Education conducted by the National Institute of Education (NIE). After their one year training with NIE, they will then be deployed to schools (MOE, 2007a).
16 November 2007 saw the inaugural Ministry Of Education-National Council of Social Service Special Education Awards to teachers and Special Education (SPED) schools in recognition of their contribution towards the education of children with special needs (MOE, 2007b). Since then the MOE-NCSS Special Education awards are given every year in November (MOE, 2008, 2009b, 2010b, 2011).
10 February 2009: MOE announced recruitment of Allied Educators (AEDs) who will partner teachers in providing specialised support in counselling, teaching and learning in special education. All AEDs will receive training at the National Institute of Education (NIE) which is fully sponsored (MOE, 2009a).
As at January 2010, VWOs are running 20 special education (SPED) schools funded by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). The SPED schools run different programmes to cater to specific disability groups of children (Tan, 2009).
10 March 2010: The MOE press release outlined its support to enhance quality of special education in terms of recognition, resources and curriculum (MOE, 2010a).
MCYS Support for Special Needs
The Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports (MCYS) has put in place support for children 6 years and below who have been diagnosed with developmental, intellectual, sensory or physical disabilities.
The Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC) provides therapy and educational support services to children with special needs. It enhances and maximises the developmental growth potential of these children and minimises the development of secondary disabilities. The programme equips them with fine/gross motor, cognitive, communication, social and self-help skills (MCYS, 2010).
The Centre for Enabled Living (CEL) provides referrals by a medical doctor or psychologist to the government-aided EIPIC centres in Singapore for children up to 6 years with developmental, intellectual, sensory or physical disabilities (MCYS, 2010).
Public awareness and media coverage
Public awareness grew over the years and there have been extensive media coverage, reports, stories and the airing of public views about people with disabilities or special needs. Public awareness is important in changing mind-sets thus promoting an inclusive society. Listed below are titles carried in the local newspapers during 2008 and 2009.
Farm gives work experience to special needs adults (26th January 2008, The Straits Times)
Growing old gracefully (18th February 2008, Business Times)
Four ways Govt can help the disabled (27th February 2008, The Straits Times)
FedEx gives disabled an opportunity to sail (18th March 2008, Business Times)
Govt helps open more doors to be disabled (12th April 2008, The Straits Times)
Kids to get half of $52m ComChest aims to raise (24th April 2008, The Straits Times)
Making a difference to disabled children (12th July 2008, The Straits Times)
Disability just another hurdle (13th July 2008, The Straits Times)
Special gadgets for their special needs (23rd September 2008, Today)
Including students with disabilities (23rd October 2008, Today)
Are we able to help the disabled? (3rd December 2008, Today)
Handicapped students get sporting chance (1st February 2009, The Straits Times)
More day care, activity centres for the elderly (6th February 2009, The Straits Times)
Work together to help the disabled (15th February 2009, The Straits Times)
Enabling the disabled is a moral duty (14th May 2009, The Straits Times)
S’pore gears up for SILVER TSUNAMI (21st May 2009, The Straits Times)
Special needs kids pack NDP funpacks (3rd August 2009, The Straits Times)
Help for disabled and elderly just a call away (28th August 2009, The Straits Times)
Enabling the disabled (18th September 2009, Today)
Govt-backed trust to help care for children with disabilities (30th October 2009, The Straits Times)
Open Door for disabled workers (1st November 2009, The Straits Times)
Students spread cheer to the terminally ill (14th November 2009, The Straits Times)
Special touch making a big difference (15th November 2009, The Straits Times)
Special education schools to offer skills certification (21st November 2009, The Straits Times)
Special schools urged to engage public (24th November 2009, The Straits Times)
More schemes to help the less fortunate (2nd December 2009, The Straits Times)
Turning disability into capability (2nd December 2009, The Straits Times)
Disabled issues to get airing at Speakers’ Corner (12th December 2009, The Straits Times)
Policy to Practice and Challenges
The difference between mainstreaming and inclusion is philosophical (Quah & Jones, 2004). Those who advocate mainstreaming holds the view that a child with special needs belongs to a special school setting and earns his way into the regular school setting. In contrast, those who support inclusion believes that the child with special needs begins in the regular school setting and is moved to special school because the appropriate services are not available or provided for in the regular school. Advocates of full inclusion believe that children with disabilities should be integrated into the general school environment regardless of whether they are able to meet the curriculum standards. In Singapore, placement is dependent on the child’s abilities and needs. Students with diverse needs are increasingly integrated into regular schools.
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The most common special education category – learning disability – could fit nearly anyone having some problems in school. Teachers in the general classroom who are managing children’s behaviours every day are in the best standing and most effective in identifying children who are at risk and in need of intervention (Mercer, Algozzine and Trifiletti, 1988). Teachers are able to identify general skills such as self-help skills, social interaction and communication skills. This is crucial in identifying children with intellectual disabilities (Kemp and Carter, 2005 as cited by Janus et al, 2007). It is not enough that teachers are effective in identifying children at risk. Teachers should be working in contact and collaboration with specialists in special needs education.
In Singapore, there are no statutory requirements to provide special services for children with special needs. Voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) have played significant roles in the introduction and development of such services since the 1950s, including early intervention programmes. Early intervention programmes are available and accessible in special schools and hospitals.
According to MCYS, referral to EIPIC (Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children) centres is executed and coordinated by the Centre for Enabled Living (CEL) through a form submission by a medical social worker at a hospital’s Child Development Unit. In general, the family doctor or general practitioner makes most of the referrals. Children who have mild disabilities that are not apparent until a later age may be missed out and their identification probably made possible only through the teachers at their preschool centres.
Preschool teachers along with special school teachers are receiving training at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in special needs education. In fact modules in special needs education are available in teachers training at both pre-service and in-service levels.
Teachers play an important role in setting the tone to create an inclusive environment within the classrooms. Janus et al (2007) cite findings of Early, Pianta, Taylor and Cox (2001) that teacher training influences their practices. This view is supported by Stephens & Braun (1980) also cited by Janus et al (2007) teachers who take special education courses are more willing to accept children with special needs and are also more confident in their ability to teach special education. Teachers’ value, beliefs and attitudes regarding diversity and difference can influence their teaching and practices. This in turn can influence the quality of experiences of students.
Although students with special needs spend most of their time in their classrooms, success in the support they receive is also influenced by factors outside the classroom but within the school. On important factor is the availability and extent of the support the school has with regard to professionals such as educational psychologists, counsellors and teacher aides. Schools may have support in terms of equipment, books and amenities; however, the extent to which these resources are coordinated within the school can affect outcome. Leadership support in the form of a principal is necessary. Above all, the collaboration between the school and the professionals involved is crucial.
Others outside the school that can influence support for students with special needs include the medical professionals, psychiatrists or paediatricians, health professionals, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and physiotherapists. Collaboration of the school with these professionals is important.
The vision of an inclusive society depends on how inclusive schools are. The move towards integration and inclusion of students with disabilities into mainstream schools is becoming a reality in Singapore.
Support for special education increased considerably since PM Lee’s call for an inclusive society. The MOE has played a more active role in special education, collaborating with special schools to achieve desired learning outcomes and collaborating with VWOs to appoint school management staff (Tan, 2009).
There was better integration and more opportunities for partnerships between special and mainstream education resulting in more opportunities of interaction among students with and without disabilities.
Education and the future of an inclusive society means teachers play a crucial role. Teachers working with students with disabilities are likely to face issues that affect the social and academic inclusion of these students. They can take stock of the challenges facing them and examine existing practices to improve current school efforts by bringing in additional necessary resources. By raising these issues and asking for help, teachers can work earnestly and make inclusion possible within the mainstream educational system for children with special needs.
Special education programmes and services are improving and special education teachers are better trained. Together with the support of government we can look forward to better quality of life for all individuals with special needs and living the reality of Singapore as an inclusive society.
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