Importance of integrating children with special needs

Updated: 2014-02-26 07:10

By Tim Collard (HK Edition)

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I was fascinated to read a recent piece in the South China Morning Post, from York Chow Yat-ngok, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, on the integration of special-needs children into the Hong Kong education system. Both in Hong Kong and on the mainland, this is an important subject and one where clear thinking and straight talking are all-important.

Much to the credit of Chinese culture, education has always occupied paramount importance in the minds of families throughout China. Parents and grandparents are willing to make a huge investment in their family's future fortunes by ensuring the best possible education for their children. But they are also conscious of living in a very competitive society. On the mainland, the one-child policy has meant that parents have been unable to hedge their bets; the family fortunes are all linked to one child. Even in Hong Kong, where no such rules apply, family sizes have been restricted by financial pressures and access to living space, with similar results.

This situation inevitably leads to a certain devil-take-the-hindmost attitude. The vital importance of getting one's own child over the finishing line tends to obscure any concern for the back markers. When Chow writes: "Access to quality education for all is fundamental to Hong Kong's competitiveness", he is fighting against strong prejudices. Many people think that competitiveness depends on not being overly sentimental towards those not best fitted to compete.

I should perhaps declare my own interest here. My own son, born in Hong Kong but educated in Beijing and London, was diagnosed autistic at 4 and unable to talk until he was 6. With intensive therapy and individual classroom help, as well as great determination on his own part, he made up the entire deficit, and now has a degree, a partner, and a job. Yes, earlier in his life he cost the state a lot of money; but now he is a contributor and a valuable member of society. Whereas an aunt of mine, who had a similar condition before it could be diagnosed, lived hopelessly in an institution until her death at 77.

The mainland, of course, is still well behind Hong Kong in understanding this, though they are catching up. Nearly 20 years ago I met a wonderful woman in Beijing who had an autistic son. She had no support at that time, and had to go abroad to get a diagnosis. During that time she had mobilized sources in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US to set up an education program for autistic children on mainland; at first without government support (as a British diplomat in Beijing I organized a few fund-raisers myself), but, as the success of the enterprise - and the number of children affected - became clear, the government decided they had better get on the bandwagon. And so the mainland is gradually becoming more enlightened, if only from a very low base - what of Hong Kong?

Chow says, "teachers and principals should also be educated on equal opportunity principles. In particular, the benefits of inclusive education should be emphasized and clearly communicated to parents, in order to break down stereotypes and clarify misunderstandings." The first of these is relatively straightforward: Teachers will always be able to imbibe whatever is on the training curriculum, although a degree of cultural change may be necessary for them to take it seriously. The problem will be with parents: How will one persuade the seriously competitive parents of seriously competitive children to see the point of supporting those who need a bit more help? Another problem is the understandable reluctance of some parents to admit that their child has a problem, due to misplaced shame and fear of loss of face, which of course makes it difficult for the child to access the necessary help.

The problems will always be a) that the ambitious parents of "normal" children will not want their own children's education to be prejudiced by the diversion of resources to the support of the less naturally able; b) that schools will not want to risk their academic records being dragged down by pupils who may well be making wonderful achievements within their own limitations but whose results have a negative influence on the statistics; and c) that investment in the education of special-needs children, like my own son, is necessarily front-loaded, in that a lot of resources need to be invested before results can be seen, and many people, who have worked and saved for their own children's education, are notoriously reluctant to see their income taxed for the benefit of the children of others, even if they are needier.

In the last resort, this will come down to what kind of society one wishes to live in. Part of Hong Kong's enormous success has come from rampant individualism; but another part has come from the combined efforts of Hongkongers and the social cohesion in the territory. Chow's vision of a "truly inclusive education system", where "every child ... can reach their full potential and achieve their dreams" may sound a bit utopian; but the idea of inclusive education, for those (like my son) who can really benefit from it, will remain an aspiration well worth pursuing, if we genuinely aspire to be an inclusive and caring society.

The author was educated at Oxford University, and served 1986-2006 in the British Diplomatic Service, including nine years in Beijing. He is now a freelance writer, journalist and commentator on political, economic and diplomatic affairs, especially China.

(HK Edition 02/26/2014 page1)