What does it mean to be inclusive? Neesha Marie Lopez shares her experience in promoting social inclusion for special education needs children

It was a clear, bright morning on the 12th of February. We. the volunteers waited at the playground for school to begin. When the bell rang, we met with an enthusiastic group of children, chaperoned by  Rosida Zakaria and Nurulhuda, the teachers in charge of the special needs children’s class.

After performing the roll call dance, all of the volunteers and the children moved off to do batik painting at the reading corner. Each child was paired with a volunteer, who helped them mix the colours or suggest how to paint the batik. Later on, we even did a Global Village programme where some of the volunteers showed their country’s traditional clothing and foods. The children were a great audience. I noticed with amusement that their excitement increased when one of the volunteers told them she bought pretzel snacks for all of them to try.

Towards the afternoon, the students went out to the field to learn how to do the volunteers roll call dance. This was the activity that they enjoyed the most. I could hear their laughter all the way from the reading corner, a good couple meters away. Most of the students appeared to be very high functioning. They enjoyed all the activities, especially the batik painting and the roll call dance. Like many other children, they seemed the happiest doing activities that expend energy. Of course, there were some students who were not as high functioning as their classmates. These students just did the batik painting.

Despite the rather hectic day, I did find some time to sit down with the teachers.  Rozida Zakaria, who has been at the school for the past two decades  expressed the hope that more NGO’s  will help support special needs children through other activities. In addition, she mentioned that “inclusivity” is very important to help her students in a multifaceted fashion.

I want to promote my students to the public, especially how to manage them, and how [the public] can help me.” She added that support is key to helping the special needs children achieve an independent life.

I always explain to [the parents] you must help the students and the school for your child.”

But support does not come easy as teaching special needs children is not a job for everyone.

Nurulhuda revealed some common challenges when teaching students with special needs.

“When we’re in class, or when we’re doing an activity, they usually won’t focus, they won’t pay attention to what we’re teaching. So we have to control them first and get them to focus, then they can follow the lesson. The student’s dietary restrictions play an important role in helping them to learn. Those with special needs need to watch their diet…[it has to be] less sugar. They have to avoid things like Milo or chocolate otherwise they would have more energy. When they have more energy, it’s harder to control them.” she explained.

it is important for these students to avoid added sugars which apart from making them more active, is also extremely unhealthy. Apart from getting them to focus, another challenge is controlling their behaviour.

Using one of the students we met earlier as an example, she said of him, “The challenge with him is he can’t sit still. You have to control how he sits, how he should…pay attention with our lessons.”

Despite these challenges, she mentions that once you get used to teaching these children, they have an unexpected soft side.

“There are some of these kids who prefer you to touch them, or hold them, cause they like you to love them or hug them. Yeah, some of them are like that. But most of them are very sweet, really.”

When asked for pointers on what parents of special needs children can do to help them, Nurulhuda advocates for specifically sensory integration therapy.. While the school does have a sensory therapy room, it’s currently under maintenance.

Referring to the condition common to special needs children known as sensory integration disorder,  Nurulhuda said “Special needs kids have three [main sensory issues]. Their hearing, their sight, and their learning abilities and mental abilities.

This disorder, as the name suggests, affects the sensory pathway of the children, and they can either be hypersensitive or hyposensitive. Needles to say, the earlier the intervention, the better the chance of improvement. Therefore it is important for parents to send their child for therapy from a very young age.

When speaking to the teachers, I found that special needs children are in fact, rather smart.

In fact, Nurulhuda mentions that her job is a little easier when it comes to academics.

Actually it’s not that they’re not clever; they’re clever because they don’t have anything that’s blocking them [mentally]. When you teach, all the information goes in and generates straightaway…not like normal kids where you have to make them understand. Yeah, these kids don’t need that, but you just need a certain skill to make them focus. What’s important for these kids is that you have to control their focus, and their behaviour” she reiterates.

This sentiment is echoed by Pn. Rosida. When asked what memories she has of her students, she said her best memories are the times she succeeded in helping her students move from the special needs class to the mainstream class.

Speaking of her students who have graduated, she says “My student are working, or they have a family with kids even, and…so many of my students have succeeded in academics and sports.” It is clear to me that both teachers are proud of their work. And they have every reason to be. It is not easy doing what they do, yet I could tell from how happy the children were by just being at school, these teachers had successfully touched the hearts of all their students.

Based on my interviews with the teachers, they clearly expressed that those with special needs can live an independent life. However they may need more support from their communities than typical children. Members of the community can help special needs children by becoming more informed about them.

There are many online sources on special needs children available. Websites such as the Autism Research Institute (autism.com) or the National Down Syndrome Society (ndss.org) are good places to start reading up about special needs. These websites have advice for parents and links to further reading if you would like to know more.

If you are a student, or a retiree, or if you happen to have some free time on your hands, I highly encourage you to volunteer at a centre for special needs. As humans, interaction with many people is paramount for developing social skills.

Everyone needs to have a social network, and not just online. It is all the more important for those with special needs, as like any normal child, they need to learn how to interact with strangers and their peers. While volunteering at special needs centres can be a huge step outside your comfort zone, the things you will learn is completely worth it.

I enjoyed spending my time with the special needs children in that school. Although it’s clear that the need for inclusive schools is still significant, I admire the school and teachers for taking the first steps towards making a difference. With small steps like these, perhaps we may one day move forward to becoming a truly inclusive society.