Peer help vital for those with special education needs: President Halimah

President Halimah Yacob playing floorball with Zhenghua Secondary student Eileen Tan, 16, during her community engagement visit to the school yesterday. The President has commended the school’s buddy system.
President Halimah Yacob playing floorball with Zhenghua Secondary student Eileen Tan, 16, during her community engagement visit to the school yesterday. The President has commended the school’s buddy system. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Classmates Muhammad Aaron Irwan and Leroy Lim are always together in school. Leroy, 13, helps to bring Aaron his food during recess and assists him with his school work when he is unable to catch up.

The two boys are also tied by their common interest: playing the online mobile game Mobile Legends together.

They are Secondary 2 students in Zhenghua Secondary, with Leroy having been designated a buddy for more than a year to Aaron - who suffers from muscular dystrophy.

The 16-year-old moves around in a wheelchair and is able to write for only 10 minutes before it gets too physically taxing for him.

Leroy said: "When I first started eating with him, we pretty much had nothing in common.

"As time went by, we started playing mobile games together, studying together and I was accompanying him wherever he goes. Our friendship then grew closer."

Speaking while on a community engagement visit to Zhenghua Secondary yesterday, President Halimah Yacob said that beyond school buildings and curriculum changes, peer-to-peer support was critical for students with special educational needs, like Aaron.

She commended the school's buddy system and pointed out that, without the understanding and support of their friends, students with special educational needs would feel marginalised and isolated and that, in turn, would impede their ability to integrate.

Zhenghua Secondary, in Bukit Panjang, is one of 35 mainstream secondary schools and junior colleges, including centralised institutes, that have been built or upgraded with facilities such as ramps and lifts for those with limited mobility.

The school also modifies its curriculum to accommodate the needs of students with physical disabilities, such as changing sports equipment so that students who use wheelchairs can take part.

Ms Judy Wee, senior manager at Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore, agreed that making the curriculum accessible for students who use wheelchairs was key to inclusivity.

She noted that certain school subjects, such as science and home economics, required students to take part in hands-on activities but the design of equipment and furniture in classrooms made it difficult for students who use wheelchairs to do so.

For instance, the high tabletops and kitchen stoves in home economics classrooms were often out of their reach and also made it dangerous for them to carry out some tasks, such as chopping ingredients or cooking. Ms Wee said having lower tabletops or height-adjustable tables would ensure these students were not left out from the lessons.

Currently, Aaron has to watch from the sidelines while his classmates participate in such activities.

Mr Eugene Lin, the school principal, said: "The school tries its best to get the students involved as much as possible.

"Those areas that are difficult to modify - they will be observers."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2019, with the headline 'Peer help vital for those with special education needs: President Halimah'. Print Edition | Subscribe