IN Malaysia, the number of persons with disabilities (PWDs) who are studying at higher learning institutions has been increasing with every academic year.
The government too is always supportive of disabled people wishing to pursue tertiary education. The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2035 and Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025 are clear on the needs of students with disabilities.
Both documents state the country’s education system aspires to be holistic, accessible and inclusive.
As the one of the oldest universities in the country, Universiti Malaya (UM) recognises the rights and needs of the disabled to pursue studies to the highest level.
The university, from the top management to support staff, is committed to provide the disabled with equal opportunities in education as is available for non-disabled persons.
UM has attempted to provide an environment that is capable of supporting disabled students in order for them to move freely and independently both socially and emotionally, and in the physical environment.
And in line with the nation’s development and UM’s intention to become a PWD-Inclusive University, and in tandem with the stipulations of the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 and United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UM has formulated a special policy pertaining to disabled students.
Speaking at the Asia Pacific Association for International Education Conference and Exhibition 2019 at Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, UM Faculty of Built Environment dean Professor Dr Yahaya Ahmad said an inclusive environment in a university, where equality is upheld, and diversity respected, is fundamental to support students with disabilities to build positive identities, develop a sense of belonging and realise their full potential.
To realise this, inclusive values have to be hardwired into its primary ecosystem of teaching and learning, governance structure, student support system and infrastructure for the benefit of the university’s community especially students with disabilities.
“UM’s Inclusive University Policy aims to provide equal opportunity to the disabled and to make the university fully accessible to them.
“The policy is expected to ensure the rights and needs of disabled students and strengthen the quality of education in the country, in addition to promoting the university’s reputation in the global arena,” he said during a dialogue session titled Towards Achieving An Inclusive Campus Environment For Students With Disability to showcase a holistic ecosystem of education for all.
Championing this issue is the Asean University Network Disability and Public Policy (AUN DPPnet), which aims to contribute to human resource development in Asean by building a cadre of disability policy leaders who can help facilitate the vision of an Asean that is inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based.
These leaders are trained and empowered to shape the policies that directly affect persons with disabilities throughout Asean and around the world.
Yahaya, who is also AUN DPPnet director, hoped that these efforts will enable disabled students to experience life in the best way possible throughout their sojourn on campus.
He added that the provisions made to meet the needs of the disabled which include facilities, equipment and services are no longer a choice or charity-based action.
“It is the right of the disabled which must be fulfilled and maintained, as has been enjoyed by non-disabled students. These efforts are not works of charity or corporate social responsibility merely carried out when an institution has surplus funds or spare workforce.”
Since 2014, UM has implemented the Inclusive University Policy which brought about the establishment of the Inclusive University Development Committee, Students With Disabilities Management Unit (UPSOKU) and Disability Liaison Officer.
“The Inclusive University Policy implementation includes standard operating procedures for teaching and learning, industrial training, examination, counselling services, scholarship and financial assistance,” said Yahaya, adding that there is still a long way to go but UM is heading towards the right direction towards achieving this mission.
In addition to running capacity-building programmes, AUN DPPnet offers postgraduate scholarship in public policy that covers tuition fees, monthly stipends, air flights and book allowances.
To date, it has given 41 scholarships for scholars to pursue master’s programmes at several universities.
RIGHTS AS DISABLED STUDENTS
Mature UM student Mohamad Sazali Shaari, who is pursuing the Master of Public Policy, said he felt a bit awkward in the beginning as he is hearing-impaired.
But his coursemates welcomed him and made him feel at home as they learnt together despite the age gap.
“I don’t feel alone because the students are sensitive to my needs. So there is no limitation or barrier for me to acquire knowledge.
“I chose to study at UM because it’s one of the oldest universities in the country and it champions ethical practices to ensure accessibility for students with disabilities,” said Mohamad Sazali, who is Malaysian Federation of the Deaf executive director.
“In an inclusive university, it is important for everyone to be aware of special needs.
“Once my lecturer asked why two women were standing behind him. I told him I needed them to sign what he taught in class.
“Within a short period of time at UM, I feel that I have learnt a lot. Students with disabilities are thankful for easy access to studies.
“We do not want sympathy but our rights as students,” added Mohamad Sazali, who values the chance to mingle with other students.
He believes easy access to communication and information is key to lifelong learning.
“I go to classes with my sign language interpreter.
“Signing is an art. An interpreter has to listen, summarise and convey the message accurately whether at a lecture or class discussion.
“Interpreters have to be familiar with the terminology of the subjects,” he added.
In advanced countries, a dedicated person is assigned to type during the presentation or lectures while students concentrate on the sign language.
“I hope that in the future the university will be able to provide these services.
“Disseminating information such as the lesson plan has helped. I interact with students on platforms such as WhatsApp and email.
Another aspect that should not be overlooked by a diverse tertiary institution is the assistive technology awareness which plays an important part in the life of students with disabilities.
Assistive technology is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities or elderly population while including the process used in selecting, locating and using them.
Common examples of assistive technologies include mobility aids such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes and crutches as well as text-to-speech tools.
Another alternative is Draft Builder, a writing tool that integrates outlining, note-taking and draft-writing functions to break down the writing process.
For some 40 years, UM Department of Rehabilitation Medicine Honorary Professor Datuk Dr Zaliha Omar has been advocating the development and use of assistive technology in her work at the university, in her clinic at the hospital as well as in the community.
“It is a privilege to work with the disabled and try to make their lives easier by introducing assistive technology.
“Don’t create things just for the use of people with disabilities. We should look at a device and create something that is functional,” said Dr Zaliha.
“In the digital era, everything is smart — at home, school and on campus — and it makes it easy for you and I. But it should be easy for people with disabilities too.”
Devices on campus must be universal in design to cater to all students including those with disabilities.
“A learning institution is responsible for providing all of the facilities needed by students.
“In terms of technology, don’t just think devices. Think of all the senses — sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch — including the three new senses which are spatial, emotional and spiritual instead. All the senses have to be put together. When we address issues of students with disabilities, we cannot afford to go wrong.
“We have to be inclusive in our thinking — think of the disabled person not only in the learning environment but also in the future when they join the workplace.”
Undergraduates Seri Irdina Syahirah Nordin and Tan Chin Ning are physically- and visually-impaired respectively.
Both faced various challenges, especially in terms of accessibility and lack of awareness during their early days on campus.
Seri Irdina Syahirah, who is in her second year of the computer science and information technology course, uses a wheelchair and rides a scooter on campus.
She finds it difficult to go to classes and have skipped them many times.
Tan, a first-year economics and administration student, was not allowed to sit exams via soft copy format. Her lecturer asked her to sit the exams with the rest of the students.
Administration officer Muhammad Firdaus Abu Hassan at the Students With Disability Management Unit, who has been helping such students on campus since 2014, intervened.
The disabled student registration and admission process are under the unit for easy monitoring during their studies.
“For cases such as Seri Irdina Syahirah and Tan, it is important for students to register with us so that we can take immediate action pertaining to their complaints,” he said.
Muhammad Firdaus, who is blind, said the number of disabled students at UM is 74 as per Semester Two (2018/2019).
Disability Management Services focuses on four key aspects — disabled student management, building accessibility and campus environment, learning and support as well as quality of life and career preparations.
“I put emphasis on building accessibility and campus environment which include transportation, accommodation and physical facilities.
“We have issued the UM Inclusive (Accessibility) Map for convenience of movement, not only for students with disabilities but also those who want to make their life simpler.
“With the map, students, friends and family members know the location of facilities such as toilets, wheelchairs and elevators with just one click of the site that is linked to Google Map,” added Muhammad Firdaus, who is pursuing the Masters in Counselling programme.
Two shuttle vans operate from 7.30am until 10pm on weekdays, fetching students with disabilities to and fro residential colleges and faculties.
“All academic staff provide assistance to disabled students during teaching and learning sessions so that they can fully participate in them and do not feel excluded and get left behind.
“This includes the provision of alternative materials, for example soft copy format for blind students, permission to record lectures and tutorials, choice of lecture room or hall that can be accessed by wheelchair-bound students.
“Lecturers and students can consult UPSOKU on the provision of support systems.
“Our services not only end here, as we also provide a platform for students to achieve high quality of life and prepare for future careers.”
The platforms include disabled student development programme, career path, sport, disabled student involvement in campus activities as well as practical training.
The varsity has more than 200 student volunteers, known as “buddies”, to help special needs students.
“They volunteer services from reading for the visually-impaired to assisting them in completing their projects.”
Other than empowerment programmes to help special needs students interact with their peers, the varsity’s inclusive policy also goes towards boosting awareness among students and staff.
The UM Voluntary Secretariat (SEKRUM) recently organised the two-day volunteer programme, Hero for the Blind, at the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
Programme director Nur Dini Mohmad Nayan said volunteers from diverse backgrounds learnt to approach visually-impaired students in the right way, without hesitation.
“The highlight was the information-sharing session on the right way to guide the blind on the move. Interestingly, all 31 volunteers, with their eyes closed, took part in recreational activities with MAB students.”
With the help of experienced instructors, volunteers played congkak, dominoes, chess, carom and a game called goalball.
The game is designed specifically for the disabled, where two teams consisting of three players try to score by placing a ball on a bell.
Nur Dini, a second-year UM Faculty of Business and Accounting student, added: “The volunteers were impressed with the dexterity of the visually-impaired who only depended on the senses of touch and hearing.”
She hoped that the programme will continue as a collective effort of students towards the pursuit of noble values that will help build a prosperous society.
“Every volunteer now has the ability to become a superhero to any disabled person in need,” she added.
UM Student Affairs and Alumni Division senior assistant registrar S. Ramlee Shamsuddin, who is also SEKRUM adviser, said the initiative not only provided the chance for volunteers to interact and experience the reality of life as a blind person, but it also had a larger aim to enhance the self-learning process to be concerned citizens in the community.
Volunteer Nur Syafiza Izzati Jamal, a second-year engineering student, learnt the right technique to help the blind.
“If you want to help them walk for example, hold their elbows instead of their sticks. I learnt the lead technique to overcome obstacles on the route, when climbing the stairs and while on a narrow path.
“Now I’m more confident to help the visually-impaired.” she said.