Monday, April 5, 2010

Towards greater inclusion

Sunday April 4, 2010

By Assoc Prof Dr Lee Lay Wah
Education systems should cater to all learners, but just placing students with special needs in remedial classes is not enough — and could even be detrimental.

STUDENTS with special needs — including students with disabilities, those who are gifted and talented, and those “at risk” of developing problems — are entitled to a wide range of support and services. These include specialised instruction, related services and supplementary aids.

The settings in which these students are placed have been much debated.

Some educationists and parents believe that students with special needs should be educated in regular education classrooms together with their peers (inclusive settings).

Meanwhile, some believe that more specialised settings can provide better, focused and perhaps customised instruction.

The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) principle has guided the development of a continuum of service placement options for students with special needs, which ranges from special schools to inclusive classes.

The goal of the LRE principle is to educate students with special needs to the maximum level possible with “normal” peers, and that separate placement options are only considered when the nature or severity of the disabilities is such that regular education classes cannot satisfactorily provide for them, even with additional support.

Special education services in Malaysia are currently delivered through various placement options such as special schools or programmes, special education classes in regular schools, resource rooms in regular schools, pull-out programmes in regular schools and inclusive classes.

Theoretically, the LRE is a sound placement model as it allows students with special needs to move closer to mainstream education when they have achieved the required level of competence in specialised settings.

In practice, however, no real placement options exists, and students are placed in programmes correlating to disabilities without much systematic progression towards mainstream education.

This means that a vast majority of students with disabilities will never gain from mainstream settings, and mainstream students will never have a chance to interact with and gain a greater understanding of special needs students.

Traditionally, inclusive education is perceived only as the physical settings in regular classrooms for students with disabilities.

It is now increasingly seen as a value-based educational reform that supports and welcomes diversity amongst all learners, and having a continuous process of responding to this diversity.

This holds especially true for a group of students that has traditionally been marginalised. It is primarily concerned with the removing of barriers to learning and quality participation in local schools and community.

However, a “just do it” approach to place students with disabilities in regular classes without meeting the required support and services is not educationally sound — and could be detrimental to the student with a disability.

Research has shown that successful inclusive education can be promoted with certain support systems and services, which may include trained adult personnel, facilities, equipment, teaching materials, changes in pedagogy, collaboration among stakeholders and an inclusive education policy.

In the past few years, we have seen the opening of more special education classes in regular mainstream schools.

These special classes are a step forward in bringing educational opportunities to students with cognitive and developmental disabilities that might otherwise be neglected, isolated at home or are only in care-giving settings.

By having these special classes, students with moderate-to-severe disabilities are taught functional academic skills, social and communication skills, adaptive skills and vocational skills in a mainstream school environment.

This in turn promotes the inclusion of students with disabilities into the community. The role of special education teachers is to provide specialised instruction to develop their students’ potentials.

On the other hand, the mushrooming of special education classes in mainstream schools has also brought about a phenomenon which reverses the benefits of inclusive education.

For example, we are seeing a group of academically poor students who otherwise function normally in daily life being pushed out of mainstream regular classes into these special classes.

Different disabilities

This is happening because many educators are still not aware of the differences between learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities.

Students with learning disabilities have average or above-average intelligence, but encounter significant problems in reading, writing and computing.

This includes students with dyslexia and dyscalculia.

Meanwhile, students with intellectual disabilities are students with significant limitations in intellectual and adaptive functioning. This includes students with mental retardation.

Our current definition of “masalah pembelajaran” might have brought about this confusion, as it is an umbrella term that covers both types of disabilities.

Special education classes are not the best placement option for students with learning disabilities, as the curriculum emphasised in special education classes are of functional academics, social skills training, behaviour, communication and other adaptive skills.

Instead, they require additional support in academic learning in mainstream classes.

This support could take the form of brief, intensive and specialised instruction in remedial programmes — which are currently provided in our primary schools, but not in all secondary schools.

Teachers’ role

Regular education teachers have been mixed in their views towards the practice of inclusion and indeed, have expressed fears towards inclusion due to their current workload and their inability to accommodate students with special needs in their classes.

A workable environment for inclusive education does require reduced class sizes, an environment that is focused on learning and instructional time, as well as available support systems for teachers.

In addition, research has found that teachers with the most intense training and in-service exposure to special needs are the most successful in inclusive practices.

This implies that all teacher training programmes should provide a good grounding in knowledge on special needs and core skills in inclusive practices.

The biggest challenge for education systems therefore is responding to learner diversity.

In a nutshell, an education system that accommodates all learners includes schools with accessible infrastructure (especially for students with physical and health disabilities); a differentiated curriculum; flexible goals; multiple instructional methods, materials and measurements (tests); and built-in support that meet the needs of diverse learners.

In order to exact any changes which will be sustainable and effective, we need to work from our current educational framework that is responsive to our local culture, context and work ethics.

No matter the status quo, we should be always moving towards greater inclusion, with the results being greater access for, acceptance and acknowledgement of children with special needs.

The writer is with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Educational Studies.

The School is leading the ENGAGE Programme – Education for Sustainable Global Futures – that proposes to transform Malaysian education to ensure our global and future relevance. Feedback and further information can be sent to and