The Evolution of Special Education in Malaysia

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DELAND, Florida — Since the official formation of the nation of Malaysia in 1963, the country has worked hard to provide compulsory and effective education to millions of young people living in the nation. Specifically, the country has made notable reforms in its approach to special education. It has worked to learn what it means to build an education system that is inclusive to all students.

A Chronology of Special Education in Malaysia

Special education in Malaysia has taken on many different forms during the last 60 years. In the years after independence, different departments of the government addressed different needs for children with disabilities and impairments. The first schools for children with different needs focused solely on physical impairments, neglecting the nuance of broader learning, mental and emotional impairments. In those early years, children with needs that weren’t related to deafness or blindness received education primarily through mainstream schooling, if at all.

Rapid reform began around and after the 1990s. The government slowly shifted its policies to become more united and reflective of the social model of disabilities. Malaysia’s Ministry of Education began to take steps toward inclusion in 1988 when children with learning disabilities were offered assistance through the nation’s Integrated Special Education Program in “pioneer classes.” As a result, children who experienced challenges with basic skills gained assistance within the mainstream school system with a priority on “effective educational access.”

1997’s Three New Programs

In 1995, Malaysia officially expanded the Ministry of Education to include the Special Education Department. Two years later, the nation introduced three new programs that would greatly shape the country’s outlook on inclusive special education. These programs included:

  1. Special Education Schools: These schools offer unique curriculums specialized for children with disabilities. The schools allow special needs children to learn in a way that is most beneficial to them. They may not be hindered by distractions or challenges inherent to mainstream schools. These schools are predominantly for children with visual and hearing impairments. However, there is also at least one primary school for children with learning disabilities as of 2014.
  2. Integration Program: The “Special Education Integrated Programme (SEIP)” offers specific classes within mainstream schools for children with disabilities. Additionally, the program is properly positioned for children with learning disabilities. Students have more time to master reading and writing skills through the program’s focus on tailoring to all needs. As of 2014, there were about 2,000 SEIP primary and secondary schools in Malaysia.
  3. Inclusion-Focused Efforts: The “Inclusive Education Programme” aims to integrate special needs children into mainstream classes with the support of teaching aids and additional assistance. The goal of this program was to create a more inclusive learning environment by not segregating children with different needs from other students.

The Persons with Disabilities Act

Another milestone in Malaysia’s special education efforts came in 2008 with the passing of the Persons with Disabilities Act. An article within this bill specifically states, “Persons with disabilities shall not be excluded from the general education system on the basis of disabilities.” In addition to this, the Persons with Disabilities Act marked one of the country’s recent major steps in transforming Malaysian society’s view of special education.

Before the 2000s, special education in Malaysia was viewed from a health and wellness perspective. Persons with disabilities were seen as less than rather than different. The stigma that they could not contribute to society persisted. The passing of the Persons with Disabilities Act served as one of the first instances where special education was treated as a social justice issue. Undoubtedly, the Act’s passage signified a comprehensive legal and social victory for the rights and abilities of countless people in Malaysia.

Dr. Kathy Piechura-Couture

Dr. Kathy Piechura-Couture witnessed these reformations in 2008 when she traveled to the city of Kuching with faculty from Stetson University. She traveled to teach a seminar on special education. Dr. Piechura-Couture and her colleagues taught at a local university, where they trained university professors to teach students how to properly instruct special needs classes.

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. Piechura-Couture said one of the main focuses was destigmatizing the topic of special needs. Just as important, the team aimed to equip teachers with strategies that would be most beneficial to special needs students and their learning.

Dr. Piechura-Couture traveled to different schools around the city of Kuching to observe teaching strategies and student behavior. When talking about her experience she said, “[W]e observed the students to suggest program needs and worked with the principals to determine program changes.”

She continued to speak on the challenges she felt the educators faced, including the use of outdated language when speaking about special needs students. Dr. Piechura-Couture explained, “When we visited the schools, the principals would always describe the students as ‘retarded.’” She continued, “We would always correct them to say ‘students with exceptionalities.’”

Work Left to Be Done

The use of offensive and outdated language reinforces the stigma around different needs for different people. This makes it an issue that still affects the country today. Although Malaysia has made great strides toward inclusion, there are still areas within the special education system that are still in need of reformation, including:

  1. Learning Facilities: There are a number of locations throughout Malaysia, including schools, that are not equipped with full physical access infrastructure. This can bar special needs children from attending schools in their area. Without question, building infrastructure that is accessible for all, including for individuals who use wheelchairs, directly relates to equal education access.
  2. Specialized Examinations: As of 2016, Malaysia does not have a nationwide examination for special needs students. Students with special needs have had to take the traditional state exam, which disproportionately disadvantages students with learning disabilities. Implementing a new nationwide exam focused on equitability would allow educators to accurately assess students’ progress.
  3. Conceptual Understanding of Special Needs: While social understanding of special needs has improved over the years, educators’ understanding of the different types of special needs is still lacking. Better and more accurate early-development detection could solve this issue. With proper early diagnoses, educators can better prepare for appropriate teaching strategies for students.

An Ongoing Effort

Malaysia’s Ministry of Education combats these challenges and more with the creation of “Special Education Service Centres.” These centers provide early intervention programs for children with special needs. Children have access to tests for early detection, rehabilitation programs and services. This includes audiology, speech pathology, occupational therapy and psychological support.

Malaysia has come a long way in its journey to inclusive education, but the efforts must continue. The passing of legislation and continued reform remains necessary. With such progress, special education in Malaysia will be inclusive, equal and accessible to all children who need it.

Kendall Couture
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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