For more than a year, Hoon Shu Yen and Nur Marsha Danisha have been spending their Monday afternoons poring over books in the library of Fernvale Primary School.
But Shu Yen is a pupil at the adjacent Fernvale Gardens School, which comes under the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds). As a result of a weekly, 45-minute joint reading scheme started in 2017, both 11-year-old girls have become friends.
The two schools are unique in Singapore in that they are linked by a "Friendship Gate" to encourage interaction between their students.
Said Nur Marsha, who is in Primary 6: "I joined (the scheme) because I wanted to help them read confidently and make them happy."
To promote greater integration islandwide, Minds launched the first of a series of six illustrated children's books yesterday. The first, titled Not So Scary After All, explores how a boy with special needs overcomes his fear of dogs with help from those around him. In line with the plot, therapy dogs were brought to Fernvale Gardens School for students from both schools to play with.
Fernvale Gardens principal Gerard Vaz said it was vital for children to be introduced to individuals with special needs from an early age. "They haven't begun to form any preconceived notions and ideas about what special needs individuals are like. It is the perfect time to plant the seeds and show that there are a lot of commonalities between them and people with special needs. The very theme of the book is that special needs pupils are no different."
Local author Lianne Ong wrote the collection. The remaining five books will be released this year, and there will be about 3,000 copies for each book.
Minds has sent copies of the first volume to its 16 mainstream primary and secondary school partners. The volume will be included in their curricula and stocked in their libraries. The books will also be given to the 900 students at all four Minds schools in Singapore.
Fernvale Primary principal Balakrishna Vyjanthimala said: "Our children have gained confidence through the reading programme. They have learnt to be patient, because they get to understand that the mannerisms of the children from Fernvale Gardens are different. They have learnt to respect somebody who is different from them and, above all, gained empathy."