Special education shouldn't focus on just economic independence

I laud last Friday's editorial for championing the cause of students with special needs and moving Singapore towards being a more inclusive society ("Give special needs students a leg-up").

There are 20 special education (Sped) schools here, and they cater to a very wide age group (from seven to 18 years), and to an even wider spectrum of special needs.

We should go beyond pigeonholing the mission of these schools to the single objective of equipping students with special needs with "necessary skills and expected attitudes to become self-supporting, by contributing to the economy and earning the respect of others".

The challenges facing students with special needs and their caregivers are complex.

Economic independence is but one form of independence.

For some students with special needs, their independence is measured by their ability to cope with activities of daily living (ADLs), which may be more challenging than attaining a qualification for work.

A student with special needs requires additional support, not only in the traditional sense of teaching, but also in the form of therapy, and psychological and work-related support.

For those who are able to seek employment, additional support should be given to them. However, this does not mean that those who are not able to (not for the lack of trying) should be neglected or given less importance.

We should not require economic outcomes for including someone in our society. Rather, an inclusive society should cater to everyone irrespective of their abilities, supporting and including them in the different aspects of society.

These students have inherent value as human beings and are also cherished members of their families. Their value should not be reduced to their economic output.

Instead, we support the expansion of the school curriculum in Sped schools to cater for our children with special needs beyond the age of 18 years.

We should not use the standardised mainstream notion of 18 years of age as the end-point for special needs education. Each student, irrespective of ability, should be supported based on their pace of development.

While helping students with special needs to achieve greater independence and economic contribution is a desirable outcome, it should never be used as a criterion for supporting them.

Instead, we need a more holistic approach to enabling students with special needs, to empower them to be independent in their ADLs, which are just as important as receiving a pay cheque.

Tim Oei
Chief Executive Officer

FORUM NOTE: AWWA is a charity that helps people with disabilities, seniors and low-income families.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Special education shouldn't focus on just economic independence'. Print Edition | Subscribe