As Malaysians look forward to celebrating 59 years of independence on Aug 31, I wonder how persons with disabilities are faring. I caught up with Puan Sariah Amirin last week, and she was more than happy to share with me her views on the needs of children and young adults with learning disabilities.
Sariah began working with people with disabilities in 1988. She is currently president of the Dyslexia Association of Malaysia. Today the association has 13 centres in Peninsular Malaysia. Plans are under way to open a centre in Kelantan.
Here’s a wish list of what is currently needed by persons with learning disabilities:
A mindset and attitude change from the top: Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. Dyslexics are not getting the proper attention they deserve. This is probably because there is a lack of understanding of the learning difficulties they face.
Dyslexics are fully capable of contributing to society. What is needed is proper and expert guidance from educators and an education system that helps them to achieve their full potential.
Captain James Anthony Tan was among the first batch of students from the Dyslexia Association of Malaysia. In 2013, he set a new world record as the youngest pilot to fly solo around the world at the age of 21.
Early intervention is better than ignoring them: It is critical to reach out to dyslexic kids early, otherwise many may become a problem to society later when they cannot fit into the education system.
Skills and hands-on training is better than emphasis on academic qualifications: Every effort must be made to change training strategy from an academic one to a skills-based model. This is not to say that academic-learning is not important. It certainly is.
But the special curriculum for persons with learning difficulties should also provide non-academic subjects like music, art and creative sport.
Sensitivity to dyslexic students: Teachers should give extra time during exams, say at least half an hour, for dyslexic students. This would greatly help students with learning difficulties to get better grades in exams.
Teachers must also learn how to deal with these students. Telling dyslexic kids that they are lazy or stupid for getting poor marks in their exams is unhelpful for the child and downright cruel. Some students with dyslexia can be very intelligent.
Government funding is vital and should never stop: Government funding greatly helps with the teaching materials that special kids need. The money is a godsend for extracurricular activities like music classes, speech and occupational therapy, and physiotherapy which can help improve their academic performance.
Organising special outings requires money, too. More special needs teachers are needed. Ideally, there should be one teacher for every five children.