MANY years ago, special needs children were left at home and schooling was not even an option.These days, they go to school but often they are placed in separate classes or their parents find them a school for those with learning difficulties.
Is this the way forward? How about having an inclusive classroom where the typically-developing children and those with special needs learn side by side?
After all, how else do we teach inclusivity and sensitivity if not by growing up together and getting to know each others’ needs on a daily basis?
Benefits of learning side by side
Educator Anne Subashini believes the inclusive classroom model should be adopted as there are many benefits.
“For the special needs children, they would learn from the typically-developing children, although not all typically-developing children can impart some kind of knowledge.
“For typically-developing children, there are a lot of benefits. Let’s say they become policy makers, they would know what to put in the policy if they have been exposed to a special needs child. If they become architects, they would have in mind designs of buildings and what they need to do in terms of ramps and toilets being accessible. If they become teachers, they would be sensitive to the different learning needs.
“A typically-developing child would learn to be more empathetic, and not sympathetic,” says Subashini.
She explains that often when we see a blind person, most people are not sure if they should help. However, if from a young age you are raised alongside those with special needs, you would know instinctively what to do in such a situation. There would be no labels and learning together becomes the norm.
“You just see them doing things differently and you’re more aware of it,” shares Subashini.
The freelance consultant and lecturer has a background in special education. She has been involved in this field for the past 20 years and spent about 10 years managing a preschool. She has seen the effects of inclusivity in her own family.
Her two daughters were exposed to special needs children since they were young. In fact, they were in an inclusive education preschool. When they went to primary school, they saw special needs children, although they were in a different building and class. Because of their exposure from young, the girls knew that these kids can learn, and wondered why they were separated.
Then they went to private school and saw children of different learning needs as well. Subashini believes that this has become a good and rich experience for them.
“My eldest daughter is in university now and she’s decided to do speech pathology. My second daughter did mass communication. After two semesters in the ADP (American Degree Programme), she said that’s not what she wants to do. She wants to be an early childhood educator instead,” reveals Subashini.
She believes it is all because of their exposure to inclusive education. She explains that reading about people with special or different learning needs is one thing, but being immersed in an inclusive education system makes a big difference and has a long-term impact.
A community project
As a lecturer, Subashini trains young adults to become teachers for those with special needs. However, she realised that there was no platform for her students to practise what she taught them in terms of inclusive education.
That’s when she decided to start a project called the Inclusive Outdoor Classroom.
“I have the space in my house; I have the time; and I have a lot of keen and committed volunteers who want to know what is inclusive education. That’s why I started this project. It can be a platform for university and college students to learn from. We talk about experiential learning, but is there space for it here? I’ve not seen it although I am in this line of work.
“My volunteers have enjoyed the experience. They say that they’ve not seen something like the Inclusive Outdoor Classroom being done elsewhere, and they didn’t know that the children can learn alongside one another,” relates Subashini.
Her volunteers are from SEGi University and HELP University; mothers, grandmothers and people from the community who want to know about inclusive education.
Subashini explains that the project is an awareness programme. It shows that you don’t have to have the perfect space to embrace inclusion. Inclusion is something that can be done anywhere and at any time.
The Inclusive Outdoor Classroom, initiated in January, is conducted twice a month, on the second and fourth Saturday of the month, from 9-10.30am.
There is art and craft, reading, music and sports. Everything is done within one session at Subashini’s home; sports activities are conducted at the neighbourhood park, if the weather permits.
Each class can only take up to 20 children as space is limited. So far, the youngest has been about 2+ and the eldest is 16.
The 16-year-old is a girl with Down Syndrome who was formerly at Subashini’s preschool. Now, she acts as a leader in the group, teaching the kids dance.
Parents of children participating in the class are discouraged from attending as volunteers. However, they usually offer support in terms of food for the volunteers.
“We don’t put labels and there is no barrier. So far we have had children with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, autism, speech delay, learning disabilities, slow learners …. We’ve not had anyone who is visually impaired or hearing impaired because the environment is not safe for the blind and we are not trained to sign.
“There are always typically-developing children in our classes. The make-up is always half and half. There are always 10 special needs children and 10 typically-developing children, who are the siblings of the special needs kids or friends’ children who want to find out more,” she says.
How to join
Through the Inclusive Outdoor Classroom’s Facebook page, Subashini has received messages from parents, asking if their children can join the class.
She explains that parents can send in their request for their kids to join the class and she will inform them which session they can join. There is a waiting list and priority is given to the children who have been with her from preschool.
“I give every child a chance. If the same kids come all the time, then I am doing something, but I’m not reaching out to other people,” she says.
As for the volunteers, either they are students from the universities she works with or they need to have references. She doesn’t believe in accepting anyone off the street when dealing with children.
Recently, spray painting was one of the activities. There was also a drum circle with the kids bringing their own musical instruments. It was good to see the children with sensory processing challenges react to the sound, while others were absorbed in playing their musical instruments.
So far, the cost for this project has been borne by Subashini, who says, “God has been kind, somehow he has provided. I still have all the materials from my old preschool, so I have the toys and some furniture. Friends have also been kind to offer sponsorship.
“As long as I can do it and time permits me, this class will be permanent. I also plan to reach out to the other states. I can train others, they can look at my project, and they can duplicate it where they are. It’s on a shoestring budget and it’s all about how you reach out to the community.”
Subashini hopes that the Inclusive Outdoor Classroom will raise awareness about inclusivity and that one day children of various learning needs can be in the same classroom.
“I want parents to know that if you want to embrace inclusive education, the first question is, would you send your typically-developing child to an inclusive environment where there are special needs children. A lot of people say they want to participate in inclusive education, but their special needs child and typically-developing child go to separate schools. If you really want to see inclusivity happening, why don’t you put both your children in the same school?
“If you decide to homeschool your special needs child, why not have your typically-developing child in the same homeschooling system?
“Are we ready to think differently, or to walk differently? That’s my point. Of course there are challenges, as in the teachers are not really equipped to deal with situations like this. In our teacher training curriculum, there is inclusive education, but what is inclusive education? It’s still a big question mark in Malaysia. Are we ready to embrace inclusive education?”