The notion of having a disability has traditionally been seen as something of a deficit, but it does not always have to be. With the right support structures in place, barriers to inclusion can be overcome and students with disabilities can go to school with a peace of mind. Associate Professor Wong Meng Ee speaks about the challenges of living with a disability and his efforts to support students with visual impairments who enter mainstream schools.
While many students look forward to learning new subjects and forging new friendships in the new school year, there are some for whom the same can induce worry and apprehension.
From worries about whether the school environment is accessible, to whether they will fit in with their classmates and whether the teacher will understand their condition, these are just some of the stresses that students with visual impairments who attend mainstream schools may face daily.
Challenges Faced in School
As someone with a visual impairment himself, Meng Ee has an intimate understanding of these difficulties and what needs to be done to support these students. He shared previously on how Allied Educators rallied together to assist students with special needs and the benefits of Assistive Technology in helping students with visual impairments learn.
“Students have so much to think about in school – making friends, learning the content of different subjects, dealing with social differences. It is a lot to juggle on top of having a disability,” says Meng Ee. A conducive learning environment helps tremendously in easing anxiety and making them feel included.
On the other hand, a lack of support structures can put students with disabilities at a disadvantage and hinder their ability to fully learn. He recalls a dearth of support for students like himself years ago.
“The support I received was entirely due to the efforts of my parents who told my teachers what to do, but my parents themselves often did not know what sort of support to even ask for. Unlike today, there was also no Internet to turn to.”
Occasionally his teachers were helpful, but back then, there were no fixed support structures for students like him.
A One-Stop Centre for the Visually Impaired
Motivated by his personal experiences to ensure students with visual impairments are not denied a proper education because of their disability, Meng Ee co-founded voluntary welfare organization iC2 PrepHouse in 2011 with fellow medical and educational professionals.
“At that time, students with visual impairments had very little support when they entered school. iC2 PrepHouse was set up to fill this gap,” he explains.
Besides providing specialist assessment to determine the special needs of each child, iC2 Prephouse also runs an Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) that equips students with the necessary skills to cope in a mainstream environment. (See box story below for more information on ECC.)
“It’s absolutely important for the student to acquire these skillsets so that he or she can be a successful individual with a visual impairment,” says Meng Ee.
Early intervention in common areas of difficulty such as reading, mobility and socializing can be very significant in maximizing a child’s learning and compensating for their disabilities. “If you detect their condition early and begin to provide support, you may not be able to eliminate it due to the limitations of medicine and science, but you may be able to improve their ability to learn and give them as best a head start as possible,” he explains.
Future Plans to Support Parents, Teachers and Caregivers
“It’s absolutely important for the student to acquire these skillsets so that he or she can be a successful individual with a visual impairment.”
– Meng Ee, Early Childhood & Special Needs Education Academic Group, NIE
In addition to imparting them life skills, Meng Ee intends to further support the visually impaired by helping teachers, parents and stakeholders who work with them.
His next project will tackle an emerging challenge – sifting through the growing plethora of assistive technologies including text enlarging software, screen readers and refreshable braille displays to decide on the most suitable device for a specific person.
In the past, if a disabled person used technology, they might have been labeled and seen as different, shares Meng Ee. Today, assistive technology built into smart devices designed for the mainstream user is resulting in it being seen in an increasingly common way, but proliferation of these technologies comes with its own challenges.
Overwhelmed by the sheer variety of options, parents may choose an assistive device based on the sole reason that another student in class is using it or because they have seen it on television, without knowing whether it is actually suitable for their child.
Through a process of questioning, he hopes to assist parents and teachers in coming closer to an informed choice. He admits it is not perfect science due to the many factors involved, but believes the questions will be helpful in clarifying their needs.
“You may not come to a definitive answer, but the more important thing is the questions you ask that help you arrive at a decision,” he says.
With improved matching of devices to users, environmental barriers to inclusion such as accessibility and communication can be overcome. Meng Ee is also optimistic that the process of questioning will lead to a better understanding of what works for the Singapore context and the devices parents, teachers and therapists might find useful.
“You may not come to a definitive answer, but the more important thing is the questions you ask that help you arrive at a decision.”
– Meng Ee, on the importance of the process of questioning to improve the selection of assistive devices for individuals with visual impairments
iC2 PrepHouse: A voluntary welfare organization that aims to provide individuals with visual impairments the support system they require.