Working with students with special needs in a mainstream school is a uniquely challenging experience, but the hard-earned successes make it all the more rewarding. An Allied Educator at St. Gabriel’s Secondary School shares his first experience providing customized support for a student with severe visual impairment and highlights key issues educators have to address in order to help them thrive.
Are we equipped to help them? Do we have enough resources? Is the school’s infrastructure a potential hindrance to their learning? These are some questions Mr Jeyaram Kadivan and his colleagues used to ponder.
But when a teenager with visual impairment arrived at St. Gabriel’s, Jeyaram knew it was his duty to cast aside his doubts and ensure that the student received a quality education that he, just like his mainstream counterparts, deserved.
Seeking the Help of Experts
“This student, who is enrolled in the Express stream at St. Gabriel’s, had lost about 80–90% of his eyesight,” Jeyaram shares. “This was a new challenge to us and even me, who was trained under the Special Education programme.”
Instead of dwelling on whether they would have the resources to support the student, Jeyaram began asking himself how he could do so. His search for tools and strategies to aid students with severe visual impairments led him to NIE Associate Professor (A/P) Wong Meng Ee who specializes in Special Education.
“A/P Wong gave me the contact details of a special education teacher who has experience working with this disability,” Jeyaram says. “She came by the school to look at the environment, structures and classroom materials, and shared with us the changes we have to make to accommodate this student.”
The changes needed were significant, but Jeyaram soon realized that as long as he put his heart into providing the student with the necessary support, everything else would eventually fall into place.
When other teachers saw his various efforts to support this student had a positive impact, they gradually became comfortable with exploring new initiatives and modifying classroom practices for the student too. And with the student’s progress, Jeyaram’s doubts over his own ability to help eventually cleared.
Yet his journey also taught him that passion alone is not enough; Jeyaram had to work hard to gain the trust of the student and his parents in order to create a safe learning environment for him.
Building Trust with Parents
Increase the text size to 36 points – this was what medical practitioners suggested to help the student read better.
“But as educators, we knew that this was not practical because then the student would see only 5 to 6 words in an A4-size printout,” explains Jeyaram. “Though you can see and read the words better, it is actually more challenging to understand the entire passage.” This is because the huge fonts spread the passage too far apart for the reader to be able to capture it fully.
Parents are understandably concerned about the well-being of their child in school and may value a doctor’s words over a teacher’s. However, teachers also have their concerns from the educational standpoint, says Jeyaram.
“When the parents saw this difficulty, they finally understood where I was coming from.”
While it can take time before parents realize that the school has their child’s well-being at heart, Jeyaram believes that it is his duty to break the barrier of mistrust. “I have to let parents see that I am here for their child,” he says.
“We spoke to his parents and told them that he would have to take all subjects including Food & Consumer Education, and Design & Technology.” And the teachers would support him.
Fighting Assumptions about Disability
To be truly inclusive, Jeyaram feels it does not matter whether a student is visually impaired – he should still receive the same education as his peers.
“If we are talking about being in a mainstream education setting, I feel that every child has to get what every other child is getting, be it academic or non-academic,” he says. One should not think of exempting a student with special needs because of assumptions of what he can or cannot do.
Effort was made to accommodate the student’s needs in subjects like Food and Consumer Education where he needed modified cooking utensils and cutlery. The teacher would also make video-recordings of live-cooking demonstrations in the classroom so that the student could watch it at home and understand the steps and recipes at his own pace.
To reassure his parents, his mother was also allowed to accompany him in other activities such as learning journeys where they go on out-of-school trips.
Teaching Students Inclusivity
“If we segregate these children with special needs in schools according to their disabilities, students from mainstream schools will never understand those with special needs.”
– Jeyaram, St. Gabriel’s Secondary School
As Franklin Roosevelt once said: We are trying to construct a more inclusive society. We are going to make a country in which no one is left out.
To build an inclusive society, the best place to start is the classroom.
The teachers’ efforts to accommodate students with special needs are but one piece of the larger puzzle of promoting inclusiveness. Jeyaram observes that allowing a child with special needs to enrol in a mainstream school can benefit other students in the school, teaching them tolerance and acceptance.
When students ask him about their classmates’ conditions, he takes the opportunity to remind them of their duty to follow the philosophy of the pioneers of St Gabriel’s and extend help to the physically disadvantaged.
“If we segregate these children with special needs in schools according to their disabilities, students from mainstream schools will never understand those with special needs,” Jeyaram explains. “This is not the way to go if we want our youths to accept people with special needs.”
After parents give him the permission to work with their child, the next step for him is to inform the rest of the class that this student has a special condition. “We help to manage their perspectives of this student by setting the right tone from the beginning,” Jeyaram adds.
This has been his priority since the day he began supporting students with special needs. With teachers like him who are committed to inclusive education, the aim to become a more caring and tolerant society seems within reach.