Inclusivity should remain the goal

Dear ST Forum

MOE recently announced the creation of three more special needs schools in Singapore to cater to growing demands (“MOE to set up 3 new autism-focused schools; more peer support initiatives for special needs students”, 8 Nov 2019).

A year ago in November, I wrote a letter that was featured in your pages, talking about this topic (“Inclusivity doesn’t help only those with special needs”, 6 Nov 2018). In it I highlighted that my son had moderate autism, and in our family’s search for how best to help him transition from preschool to primary school, I expressed hope for a day when schools and society here would not just fully embrace him and those like him, but also be inclusive of everyone with every conceivable form of disability. In short, I was advocating for inclusion; not just for my son, but for everyone.

Since then, I’ve watched my son develop well in an environment designed specifically to help students like him adjust to mainstream primary school curriculum. In so doing, I have found a measure of peace and gratitude that not only is he enjoying school, he is learning in ways that (a year ago) I would not have believed he could. I realised that the right question to ask back then was not whether he should be in a mainstream or special needs school, but rather which learning environment would be most suitable for him at this stage of his personal development and disposition.

I believe this is a relevant question too for many parents like me out there now, particularly those whose children were only recently diagnosed, and who may be at a loss as to what to do next.

In reading this MOE announcement though, I felt conflicted. Not because my conviction about full inclusion has wavered since a year ago. It has not. But I have had time to consider the challenges families faced, and the times we currently live in. And I understand to a degree the decision MOE has made. I know there are no easy solutions and I understand better that even as I await a day where Singapore (and Singaporeans) can fully accept those with different abilities into her fold, the path to getting there for now necessitates such a step to build more SPED schools. For sure, I know there are families out there that are pleased with this announcement, and are heaving a great sigh of relief.

Still, even as this move gets underway, I hope that the announcement’s accompanying promise of resources that will be pumped into mainstream schools as well (to allow them to better assist special needs students in their midst), will indeed come to pass – in reality and not just on paper. I also hope that mainstream schools will make it a priority to always take a good hard look at students who need a helping hand to assimilate better, and continue to lend these students that hand.

For this to happen, I implore policy-makers, principals, teachers, parents and schoolmates of SPED students to keep working together closely and resolutely to provide warm and welcoming learning environments for all, no matter what their abilities or disabilities.

When that happens, then we can truly call ourselves an inclusive society and people, and it would then no longer matter which schools our children go to.

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