Some people with disabilities feel they may be good teachers for pre-school children with similar issues because they understand their struggles better, but they are largely excluded from early childhood courses.
The result is that Singapore has hardly any pre-school teachers with disabilities, yet they form a small but willing group who could help meet the shortage of educators with expertise in special needs.
Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua told The Sunday Times: "It is already challenging enough to try to recruit pre-school educators for typical children... To attract and retain pre-school teachers trained in special needs and early intervention is even more challenging."
There were only 50 learning support educators in 2016 and around 75 last year, according to the Early Childhood Development Agency.
They are trained to screen children with developmental needs and can provide learning support and intervention, among other things.
The Singapore University of Social Sciences lists conditions such as epilepsy and diabetes that are uncontrolled by medication, or blindness, deafness and restricted mobility as impediments to medical clearance for the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education course.
This is because the programme involves "working with large groups of young children in local childcare centres and kindergarten".
TOUGH RECRUITING, RETAINING SPECIAL NEEDS TEACHERS
It is already challenging enough to try to recruit pre-school educators for typical children... To attract and retain pre-school teachers trained in special needs and early intervention is even more challenging.
JALAN BESAR GRC MP DENISE PHUA
The childcare centre stopped sponsoring me for the diploma and they told me that because of my disability, I am not able to function well in my role... I love children and I feel I can teach, even if I can't dance or play certain games with them.
MS E. WONG, 48, who has a disability that affects the brain and spinal cord, and who was initially funded by a childcare centre to obtain an early childhood diploma at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
The National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) requires applicants to its early childhood education courses to have certain abilities to teach and care for young children.
These include interpersonal ability and behavioural stability to provide safe care, being physically able to tend to children, as well as acceptable visual and hearing ability.
Ms Nix Sang, a researcher who works in the disability sector, noticed such requirements and started a discussion on Facebook.
"These requirements actually mean it is very unlikely we have people with disabilities as early childhood educators in the classrooms and no role models with disabilities for the young children," she wrote.
"Doors also seem to be shut for those who would like to go into any non-teaching positions related to the sector."
She was referring to career opportunities listed under Temasek Polytechnic's early childhood course, such as child support and family services staff, curriculum specialist and planner for children's events.
Ms E. Wong, 48, who has a disability that affects the brain and spinal cord, was initially funded by a childcare centre to obtain an early childhood diploma at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Part of the course required her to do an internship at a pre-school centre last year.
"The childcare centre stopped sponsoring me for the diploma and they told me that because of my disability, I am not able to function well in my role," said Ms Wong, who has difficulty walking if she has a relapse.
"I love children and I feel I can teach, even if I can't dance or play certain games with them."
She now teaches in a private student care centre.
Ms L. Tan, the mother of a 21-year-old daughter with Asperger's syndrome, said she called two early childhood institutes here to ask about admission for her daughter, but was told they did not admit persons with special needs.
"It is a sad situation because she has strong interest to be a teacher and I believe her condition is of value, as she has the empathy and understanding to reach out to all kinds of children, including those with autism," said Ms Tan.
She accompanied her daughter to Malaysia last month, where there are no such exclusions, to pursue tertiary education in early childhood studies and piano.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) said NIEC may exercise discretion for admissions on a case-by-case basis, and students with mild special needs have been admitted into early childhood courses. NIEC was set up by the MOE.
People with disabilities can also join the pre-school profession if they are suitably qualified, said the MOE spokesman.
Figures on the number of pre-school educators with disabilities are not available.
Janice Tai and Yuen Sin
More teachers given relevant training: MOE
Last year, about 26,000 students with mild special educational needs (SEN) were enrolled in mainstream primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges.
Before enrolling their child for Primary 1, parents may have consulted doctors, psychologists or therapists in government/restructured hospitals for a professional assessment of their child's SEN or developmental needs. If so, during Primary 1 registration, parents are encouraged to share the report as well as any relevant information about the child's needs, so that the school can better support the child.
For students who are already enrolled in a mainstream school, parents may consult the school if they have reason to think that their child may have SEN.
Schools can refer such cases to MOE psychologists for an assessment. Alternatively, the child can also be assessed by qualified professionals in private practice, at the parents' own arrangement. With this information, parents can work together with the school and MOE psychologist to provide appropriate intervention support for the child.
Since 2005, all pre-service teachers undergoing training at the National Institute of Education are taught to support students with SEN.
Through modules such as Teaching and Managing Diverse Learners, Educational Psychology and Pedagogical Practices, teachers gain a basic understanding of students with SEN and how to help them in their education journey.
In every school, a core group of teachers would undergo a specialised 130-hour training course to equip them with more SEN insights and the necessary skills to cater to the needs of these students. Currently, about 15 per cent of teachers have been certified as teachers trained in special needs (TSNs).
MOE is also currently working towards equipping all teachers with basic knowledge on how to support students with SEN. This is done through school-based training and cluster-based workshops.
In addition to TSNs, mainstream schools are resourced with specialised personnel - called allied educators (learning and behavioural support), or AED (LBS) - to provide intervention support to these students.
Over the last five years, the number of AED (LBS) has grown by over 40 per cent. As of December 2018, there is at least one AED (LBS) in every primary school and most secondary schools.
They are equipped with specialised skills and knowledge to identify and support students with SEN. For instance, the AED (LBS) could arrange for a weekly session with these students, during which they receive specific coaching tailored to their needs.
MOE will continue to grow the number of AED (LBS).
Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.