An Article in The Malaysian Insider

Dealing with Differences

By Cheryl Ann Fernando

May 28, 2015

When I was in school, I struggled a little with my studies. I found it strange that the tasks that seem so easy for others were very difficult for me. For starters, I couldn’t spell a lot of words. I couldn’t tell left from right. I also took a long time to learn how to tell the time. My younger brother found it very amusing that he could do things better than I could. My teachers didn’t say much except wonder what was wrong with me. In fact, I was asked the same question many times, “What’s wrong with you?” 

All through university, I still struggled with spelling and mathematics but persisted through to get good grades. A few years ago, I read about dyslexia and realised that I could relate to a lot of its symptoms. It finally made sense why certain tasks were so difficult for me, especially when it comes to spelling. Although I have never gone for a proper diagnosis, I knew that my symptoms were that of a dyslexic person.

I am certain that there are many other people out there who wonder what’s “wrong” with them. Many parents, just like my own, might also be curious why their child cannot tell left from right although they have taught them many times. In a class of 30-over students, a teacher might also struggle to deal with students who are differently abled.

If a parent with a special child has enough money, they are able to send them to a private or international school where they can get the necessary support to function normally in society.  During my short stint in the learning support department in an international school, I saw how students with autism, dyspraxia and dyslexia were given so much help that they could manage their disability and perform well in school.

For the rest of us who cannot afford to go to a private or international school, we are left with little to no choice when it comes to special education. In Malaysia, we are still a work-in-progress when it comes to providing for our students with special needs.  Students who are differently-abled in normal schools are encouraged to go to special schools but it is a known fact that they are not given adequate support academically when they are there. Many times, students with different kinds of learning disabilities are all placed in the same classroom. This hinders a teacher from providing them with the needed support to harness their potential.

In Malaysia, we also face a huge stigma when it comes to special education.  We do not want to be known as “special”. We do not want to be known as “differently abled”. If anything, we want to blend in with the crowd. Sadly enough, our school system is also geared in such a way that we believe all our students are the same. We force the same syllabus for everyone, without knowing beforehand if they are dyslexic or have any other special learning disabilities.

Besides special needs, we also have nothing in place for our students who are gifted and talented. I read with great interest the story of Adi Putra Abd Ghani, the forgotten child genius. It was evident that we have nothing to support him. Because we have nothing, his best bet is to use his skills and talents elsewhere, in a country that can support his ability.

Just like Adi Putra, I’m certain there are many more geniuses in our system who are going to school day after day, following the same syllabus as their peers. I’m certain that they are many talented students in our system, students who can sing, draw and act; yet we have nothing to help them develop these talents. In the end, they would either try to make a name in a different country or give up and just be normal like the rest.

We cannot afford to forget our students, especially those who are differently-abled. We need to find a middle ground where our students are in an education system that caters to their learning abilities. We have a great pool of talent here in Malaysia, all of which will be wasted if we keep measuring them on the same standards.

There’s a famous quote from educationist Ignacio Estrada that says: “If a child cannot learn from the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn”.  It’s time for us to recognise and harness the talents in each of our children to help them see their own potential and inevitably, lead them to become useful members of the society.