Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi launched the National Education Blueprint (Pelan Induk Pembangunan Pendidikan 2006 – 2010) at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre on January 16. Present at the launching were Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein whose ministry drew up the blueprint, and Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed.
There is not a doubt that education is integral to the development of the country and our aspiration to become a developed nation by 2020. That is just a short thirteen years away. Therefore, it is timely that the Ministry of Education has taken this initiative to take us to the next level in formal education to ensure that we are well prepared to face the challenges ahead.
When I read about the launching of the National Education Blueprint, the question of what is in there for disabled persons cropped up naturally. Skimming through the document, I discovered that not enough detail was specified to address the needs of students with impairments. Will these integrated schools, inclusive schools and special education schools that were mentioned in the blueprint accept children with severe impairments that need assistance and support or is it only for those who can manage themselves independently and are reasonably mobile?
Not too long ago, there were reports of wheelchair users who were unable to attend regular schools because of the lack of accessible amenities. Recently, I heard of how a fellow training mate who is blind had to study in a school 500km away from his village and some friends with hearing impairment having to stay in a residential school for special education in Penang and far away from their respective hometowns to complete their secondary education.
Imagine a teenager having to spend most part of his growing up years torn away from his family. How many parents of non-disabled children would consent to this form of separation? However, these disabled teenagers and their parents have no choice because without education they would be even more marginalised from society, especially when it comes to employment opportunities.
A disabled child should have the same rights as any other child to education in mainstream schools of their choice. They should be able to study together with children of their age. Inclusive educational policies have many advantages over segregated education. The UNESCO Salamanca Statement drawn up in 1994 stated the benefits very clearly:
Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.
The National Educational Blueprint has identified this area to work on and has set a target to achieve it. While it is all nice in paper, implementation of this objective must be real and not mere printed words only. Sometimes, providing an accessible environment and making some minor adjustments to the present school set-up will be sufficient to accommodate disabled children. Other times, it may need extra consideration and more effort for children with multiple impairments. These children must be given the same opportunities nonetheless.
That said, one nagging issue still remains in my mind although I am sure there are more. How are disabled students supposed to attend regular schools when there is no accessible public transport for those who need it? While I am all praises for the foresight of the Ministry of Education, my opinion is that the only way to make this successful is to have a blueprint that looks into every aspect and the ancillary components related to education. Having a cart without the wheels would render it useless. All the ministries must come together to draw up a comprehensive national master plan to tackle related issues to make it work.