MOH to improve testing procedures for persons with special needs

Caregivers welcome move to have people trained to work with them carry out the swab tests

A 34-year-old man with an intellectual disability, who had attended a session at adult disability home MINDSville@ Napiri (above), was placed on quarantine after a Covid-19 cluster was detected there. However, he struggled during the Covid-19 swab te
A 34-year-old man with an intellectual disability, who had attended a session at adult disability home MINDSville@ Napiri (above), was placed on quarantine after a Covid-19 cluster was detected there. However, he struggled during the Covid-19 swab test last Friday, unable to comprehend the situation.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

The Ministry of Health (MOH) will improve Covid-19 testing procedures for persons with special needs, in a move welcomed by caregivers and social agencies.

Parliamentary Secretary of Health Rahayu Mahzam said yesterday morning that personnel carrying out these tests will be trained on how to handle persons with special needs.

She noted in a Facebook post that personnel carrying out swab tests "have not been specially trained to deal with persons with special needs".

Hence, MOH has started looking into engaging relevant professionals, as well as volunteers from the National Council of Social Service, who are trained to work with persons with special needs, she added.

MOH will also study the effectiveness of alternative Covid-19 tests that are less intrusive.

In addition, the ministry will improve communications between the agencies involved in the quarantine process to make it smoother for persons with special needs, among other measures.

MOH's review came after accounts by caregivers sparked calls for the authorities to do more to help persons with disabilities.

"We understand (the caregivers') grievance and it is indeed unfortunate that they had to go through such an experience," said Ms Rahayu, referring to two recent cases.

One of them involved Ms Cindy Chee, whose 18-year-old son, Matthew, has autism. He was traumatised after being asked to go through a swab test.

Thanking the authorities for their swift response to her concerns, Ms Chee, 45, said: "I think having a dedicated channel of communication for special needs families to seek help or clarify special circumstances will be helpful too."

The other incident involved special education teacher Amilia Koh, 26, and her 34-year-old brother who struggled for 30 minutes during a swab test.

Ms Koh hopes MOH's review can reassure caregivers that their loved ones can go through Covid-19 protocols safely without putting front-liners at unnecessary risk.

She suggested that swabbers discuss with caregivers how to carry out the swab tests on persons with disabilities.

Special education institutions could also identify some representatives to attend swabber courses, and deploy them to help persons with disabilities when the need arises, she added.

Dr Lim Hong Huay, an epidemiologist and developmental paediatrician who has two children with autism, said awareness training could help front-line workers understand the different special needs and disabilities, so they can come across as empathetic, respectful and sensitive.

Dr Lim, who is the board chair of Caring SG, an initiative for the special needs community, also said caregivers should be allowed to accompany those with disabilities through Covid-19 protocols.

Social service agencies and caregivers also urged MOH to engage caregivers and persons with special needs to improve protocols.

Ms Alina Chua, principal autism consultant and psychologist at Autism Resource Centre (Singapore), said their experiences will help the authorities understand what can be improved to minimise any impact of the protocols on individuals on the autism spectrum.

Ms Sun Meilian, 48, who founded the Friends of ASD Families group and has a son with autism, said it was important to note that there are varying degrees of challenges among different disabilities and within each disability.

"The improved protocols should be tiered to cater to different needs, rather than applied as a broad stroke, so that we won't have to stretch our resources unduly, and to ensure that those who genuinely have high support needs get the most help," she said.

"I hope these episodes have helped the public become more aware that persons with disabilities have different needs which require a different way of handling things, even as we are all trying our best to cooperate in fighting Covid-19."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2021, with the headline 'MOH to improve testing procedures for persons with special needs'. Subscribe