Singapore is far from being 'inclusive' for special needs children: industry professionals

(Getty Images file photo)
(Getty Images file photo)

While over nine out of 10 early intervention professionals who work with young children diagnosed with developmental or special needs feel that the sector has made “considerable strides in the last five to ten years”, only a small fraction of them think of Singapore as an inclusive society, according to a survey released on Tuesday (24 April).

The findings of a recent survey commissioned by Lien Foundation showed that only 11 per cent of professionals polled perceive Singapore as an inclusive society, “significantly lower” than parents of children with special needs (28 per cent) and the general public (30 per cent) who were polled in the philanthropic foundation‘s 2016 Inclusive Attitudes Survey.

A clearer understanding of inclusion and different expectations might have coloured their opinions, said J R Karthikeyan, senior director of AWWA Disability and Inclusion.

“What professionals think of as inclusion may not be the same as what the public (perceive it to be). There’s a difference between integration and inclusion. Integration is where you put both groups of people together. Without the culture of inclusion or inclusive values (such as having one’s identity affirmed, accepted and valued for oneself), there is no inclusion,” said Karthikeyan, who oversees Singapore’s first inclusive preschool Kindle Garden, a partnership between the Lien Foundation and AWWA.

Eighty-three per cent polled believe that inclusive education – where children of all needs are well-supported to learn in a non-segregated environment – play a critical role in creating an inclusive society.

Seventy-one per cent also feel that both sets of children – with and without special needs – gain equally from inclusive education, while 22 per cent believe that typically-developing children stand to gain more from attending school with those who have special needs.

‘Barriers, challenges’ to inclusive education

Professionals felt that there are many barriers to inclusive education, according to the survey. The top three barriers are a lack of resources for mainstream school teachers to attend to children with special needs (66 per cent), an education system that places high emphasis on standardised assessments (58 per cent) and insufficiently-trained mainstream teachers (58 per cent).

Challenges they faced in their work also threaten to hamper a relatively young sector, according to findings.

For instance, 51 per cent of those polled cited quick burn-out due to high physical and emotional strain as a key challenge, while 44 per cent and 34 per cent pointed to unattractive salary and benefits as well as manpower shortage, respectively.

These concerns were “especially pronounced” for those who have been working in the sector for less than two years, compared with those with more than five years of experience.

Karthikeyan attributed the quick burn-out to the fact that almost half of the sector in Singapore – estimated at about 500 professionals – is made of young graduates.

“Over the last two years, many things have been done – a new centre, new programmes and activities. With that, there have been a lot of new recruitments of young graduates,” said Karthikeyan. “When they are new, and the sector is catching up, they may feel that children are not progressing and may get disheartened.”

Measures proposed to address these challenges include introducing teacher aides, a smaller teacher-student ratio for children with more severe needs, mentorship programmes for junior staff and scholarships.

“We can’t change the nature of the job, but we can give more resources and necessary training to support their passion,” added June Tham-Toh Syn Yuen, former executive director of Rainbow Centre Singapore. “Without competent and motivated professionals in service, the learning outcomes of children will be adversely impacted.”

On a more positive note, 78 per cent believed that their work is making an impact on the lives of children with special needs, while 76 per cent plan to stay in the sector for three years or more.

A need for central authority

Other concerns include weak integration between various early intervention service providers and insufficient government funding.

Fifty-seven per cent called for the Ministry of Education to take up the role to “ensure better allocation of resources and fairer chances” for children with special needs while 19 per cent believed that the Ministry of Family and Social Development (MSF) should continue to oversee the sector.

Twenty-one per cent support collaboration between both agencies. Sector leaders who were interviewed also believed there should be a similar agency – like the Early Childhood Development Authority – to oversee the Intervention Programme for Infant and Children (EIPIC) sector.

Currently, there are 21 EIPIC centres in Singapore that serviced an estimated 3,200 infants and young children, according to the MSF.

The survey, believed to be the first of its kind to be made public, was conducted to support the inaugural Early Intervention Conference held this Friday.

A total of 423 early intervention professionals were polled and in-depth qualitative interviews with 14 sector leaders were conducted by Blackbox Research from February to April this year.

The survey also aimed to shed light on ways to better support the aspirations of these professionals, Lien Foundation added.

Respondents included teachers, therapists and social workers from government-funded EIPIC centres, hospitals and private early intervention outfits.

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