By Nicole Descalsota
For most students, using the lift or ramps are simple matters pertaining to convenience – we can do without them, but we can choose to use them when we don’t feel like using the stairs.
But for others, like fourth-year Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student Valerie Foo, such facilities are a necessity for her. As a wheelchair user, she takes the lifts and ramps in order to make her way around campus.
On one day, she was waiting for a lift at the School of Biological Sciences to get to class. Despite needing it more than others, other students continually barged into the lift, squeezing past her.
“It’s actually very stressful,” she said. “Sometimes I have no choice but to pick up the courage to ask them to take the stairs because I really need to get to class.”
This is only one of the many problems faced by students with special needs on campus. The term ‘special needs’ includes a wide range of educational requirements, such as physical disability, learning difficulties or emotional and behavioral difficulties.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated some of the difficulties these students face. For example, students who are blind or hard of hearing must grapple with additional hurdles due to the pandemic. Mask-wearing, for example, interferes with lip reading.
Giving the Necessary Push
In order to make their university lives less challenging, NTU’s Accessible Education Unit (AEU) works closely to make sure they are well-supported.
“Everyone deserves equal opportunities to succeed in their lives,” said Ms Belinda Ho, Deputy Directors of the Student Affairs Office.
“Accessibility is making sure that whatever communication, transfer of knowledge, or mobility, is barrier-free,” she said. “Regardless of your nationality, your race, your abilities, or your background, you should be included. And that is a big job.”
The AEU’s role is to help the students become well-integrated in NTU and receive the equipment and support they need to succeed.
When SafeEntry QR codes were first implemented, they were placed at a height that could not be easily scanned by wheelchair users like Valerie. The AEU then added QR codes at a more convenient location for people on wheelchairs.
Ms Chia Woon Yee, Manager of the AEU, said: “Sometimes when these initiatives are put out, we forget that there are other users, too. But these are the things that we need to pay attention to.”
The concept of physical accessibility is simple to understand – they are marked by the presence of braille, ramps, or tactile markers. But accessibility extends past the physical realm and into the intangible virtual world.
With COVID-19 moving work online, accessibility of digital content becomes increasingly important. The methods to ensure digital accessibility ranges from using appropriate colour contrast on websites to alternative text to describe photos, or even closed captions on videos.
These are some considerations the AEU hopes to highlight in their Inclusion & Integration Checklist. It serves as a guide for event planning and a reminder to be prepared for any special needs participants may have.
Despite the positive impact the AEU has contributed to accessibility in NTU, the unit has reflected that much more can still be done.
“Any officer will tell you that resources are not sufficient everywhere,” Ms Ho said.
The growth and future are being looked at, and students will surely be taken care of, she added. “Inclusion is one of the big areas in the NTU 2025 plan.”
Easier Said Than Done
Unfortunately, accessibility does not have a be-all and end-all answer to the challenges that come with implementing it. Each location and its specifications play a big role in the solutions that are employed.
When it comes to NTU, its sloping, hill-like terrain and older infrastructure pose serious problems when planning new accessible facilities. Other factors like aesthetics are considered even if they are not the most practical additions.
“I, myself, have difficulty moving around the National Institute of Education (NIE) because there are a lot of pillars. These are some terrible obstacles for a visually impaired person,” shared Dr Wong Meng Ee.
He has worked in NIE’s Special Education department for 13 years. Still, as a visually impaired person, navigating the school is not easy.
One possible guiding point to this could be Universal Design, or ‘Design for All’. It aims to create products and environments that address the physical, social and psychological needs of as many people as possible, regardless of abilities and age. The concept is simple, but execution comes with many conflicting considerations.
“The tricky part is this: we have these tactile markers to help a blind person guide themselves, but the fellow on the wheelchair will say no, this is a hindrance,” Dr Wong explained.
With more initiatives set in motion by the Ministry of Education, accessible education for people with special needs is receiving more attention.
Following amendments to the Compulsory Education Act in 2019 dictating that all students must attend school, the Ministry continued to launch support for students with special needs. These schemes include having allied educators to counsel and support these students enrolled in mainstream schools. This would naturally lead to more students with special needs entering higher educational institutes such as NTU.
Educators are growing increasingly worried, as the AEU only houses two staff focused solely on students with special needs and would not be able to handle these incoming students alone.
“We have to move into a space where faculties need to take more responsibility to equip educators with skills to teach, interact and communicate with diverse students,” Dr Wong said.
Dr Ailsa Goh, who lectures alongside Dr Wong in the Special Education Department, chimed in: “We always teach our trainees to be reflective practitioners.
“What we can do is ask them – ‘How can we help you better?’ That’s the first step: having empathy.”
Disability Awareness in School Life
However, the burden of making the campus more accessible does not fall only on the shoulders of teaching professionals and school leaders. In order to instill an attitude that truly embraces and is mindful of people with diverse needs, education is necessary.
“I think we should have disability lessons from the get-go,” said Professor Gerard Goggin, who teaches Digital Inclusion and Disability at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
Singapore has always invested heavily in education. This is a resource it should tap on to teach accessibility, he shared.
Aside from educators’ efforts, fellow students and the larger community also play a crucial role.
“Disability is a part of social complexity,” Prof Goggin said. “It’s not just a medical problem.”
Instead, the burden also lies with the student body to include and be prepared for any student with diverse needs who is in their class or participates in the activities they organise.
“People come to university for cultural opportunities. If you value universities with social and cultural life, it’s crucial [to be accessible].”
As a student herself, Valerie has also echoed these sentiments, recalling her experience at a student-run ad-hoc event. Because the sign-up form did not allow her to indicate any disability requirements, student organisers were awkward and unprepared when they saw her.
“They literally didn’t know what to do with me,” Valerie said. “Because of that, I started to feel down.”
The best way to interact with people with disabilities is to treat them like anyone else, she added. Another great basic way is to ask if they need help before carrying out any actions.
Although she has had many unpleasant encounters with people, Valerie also relayed her gratitude to her friends who are able to anticipate her needs. This could be because they learnt through watching other people assist people with special needs or hearing from her directly.
“I think it would be good to have a disability course as a 1 AU module,” Valerie suggested. “Maybe it could even gradually interest students to learn more about it.”
In our everyday life, it’s important to note that disabilities are more than what meets the eye. Perhaps the best way to move forward is to be open-minded and treat every person we encounter with consideration. We can all practise being unprejudiced today – ‘inclusivity’ and ‘accessibility’ are words that mean nothing without action and a receptive attitude.
Change can start from the top of the ladder, but change starts with us individuals, too. Only then, perhaps, can we meet in the middle.
To read more resources or the full interviews with the various speakers, please click here.