The decision to expand a school-to-work scheme for graduating students with special needs represents the natural extension of an effort to make Singapore an inclusive society. If the moral strength of any society lies in how well it takes care of the disadvantaged (physically, mentally and economically), then the education system owes a particular responsibility towards students with special learning needs. The objective of the system must be to equip them with necessary skills and expected attitudes to become self-supporting, by contributing to the economy and earning the respect of others. The school-to-work scheme seeks to find viable niches in the workplace for those who, without special help and care, might flounder in an intensely competitive environment where even mainstream students need the right attributes to negotiate the ups and downs of the job market.
The success of the scheme will depend on how well the education system prepares them for the world outside school. Reassuringly, certain basic structures are in place. Singapore students with mild needs who can learn in large-group settings benefit from studying in state schools. Those whose needs are greater are cared for in government-subsidised special education (Sped) schools run by voluntary welfare organisations. There, a learning environment - contoured specifically to meeting their needs - helps them to optimise their potential. Singapore's education system, which is acknowledged internationally for its excellence in producing scorers in subjects such as science and mathematics, should also strive to do its best for special needs students.
There are some 20 Sped schools which offer customised programmes for students who struggle with varying levels of intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, multiple disability and sensory impairment. Their facilities vary and some have a long waiting list - up to a year for those seeking early intervention programmes. Some schools cannot meet all the needs of students and they have to seek extra help externally. It's challenging for them and their caregivers as they journey towards self-realisation as responsible and independent adults.
Singapore employers must step up to the plate by giving these young people a chance. Certainly, businesses require employees to meet job demands. However, jobs can be tailored so some can be executed by differently abled people working together with others in a diverse workplace. Enlightened employers would be buoyed by the fact that many special-needs employees excel precisely because they cherish the opportunity to do so. Transforming the special-needs landscape into one of greater independence and economic contribution is far better than to simply adopt a charity-based approach when caring for them.