Working with Children with Disabilities
Posted on June 25, 2019 by All In
Here is a word from one of All In’s founder Daniel Tan, who is currently the Honorary Assistant Secretary of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS). He is also the Chairman of the Residential and Community-based Care Services Committee.
In this article, Daniel shares his experience from working with children with disabilities.
Written by Daniel Tan
As we journey towards a more inclusive society, how can we work with children with disabilities? Here are some of my thoughts.
Don’t judge them
To make sense of the world around us, it is not uncommon for us to make quick judgements about others through our own lenses – lenses that are very much shaped by societal norms and perspectives developed through our own experiences.
When we see children whom we perceive to be misbehaving in public, how often do we judge their parents as people who are not able to discipline their children? But are the children really misbehaving or are they having a meltdown because they are on the autism disorder spectrum?
Not all children with disabilities have disabilities that are visible. Some disabilities could be “invisible”, like autism, dyslexia, etc.
I think it’s important that we always suspend judgement because we never know if we could be silently damaging a child’s self-esteem.
I organised a youth expedition to build a hospital in India some years back and we brought along a youth with intellectual disability. It would have been easy for everyone on the expedition to have judged that this youth may not be able to contribute to the project as much as the other youths, but it was heartening that they did not judge him that way. Instead, they involved him in all activities, supporting him to contribute as much as he can.
How often have we dismissed someone before giving him or her a chance? Taking a step back from the fast-paced and merit-focused environment we live in, let’s choose instead to focus on living in a community called humanity. There is a great deal of diversity in this world and being judgmental only serves to exclude others from contributing.
When we work with a child with a disability, let’s take time to observe and make the effort to interact. Some children with disabilities may perceive sensory input in different ways and communicate through different types of behaviour. Make the effort to meet their eyes openly, introduce yourself, verbally and physically as well if needed, and take the time to slowly explain the activity you are organising to the child.
Appreciate their rhythm
How often do we try to follow the rhythm set by other people to reach our destinations, and in turn impose our rhythm on others?
I remember that more than 20 years ago, when I first started volunteering with persons with intellectual disability, I was an impatient teenager expecting to see quick improvements in them through the programmes that I tried to implement.
For example, when I tried to teach the concept of money to a boy whom I was working with, I expected him to remember everything within two sessions since I had simplified everything for him. However, every time, I will be disappointed. I eventually learnt that it takes very long for the PWIDs to exhibit any improvement. I learnt to accept that they had their own rhythm in doing things.
I will always remember the patience and dedication of a fellow volunteer who exemplified this concept of accepting other people’s rhythm:
The girl she was working with couldn’t walk and relied on crawling to get around. As the girl belonged to a single-parent family, her mother had to work on weekends to make ends meet and was sometimes unable to bring the girl to the activities. The volunteer took the initiative to go to her home and bring the girl to the centre herself.
However, despite regular training by the volunteer, there was no marked improvement in the girl’s ability to walk. With no expectations, the volunteer persevered with the training. It was not until more than 4 years later that she started walking on her own. It was clear that regardless of differences in rhythm, given time, patience and determination, everybody’s rhythm would still bring him or her to where he or she has set out for.
When we work with children with disabilities, we need to be patient, flexible and yet consistent, and we must always have a back-up plan. We should be prepared to try new ways to accommodate a child’s rhythm, but at the same time, it is important to set clear rules and ensure that the rules apply consistently to all.
In our journey of life, some of us may need more time than others while some of us may need a bit of assistance for long stretches. Our journey can be completed more meaningfully when we respect other people’s rhythm.
Don’t limit their possibilities
How often have we limited the development of someone else just because we think they cannot do something?
Let’s not underestimate the potential of children with disabilities. Let’s be optimistic and believe that they are able to reach their fullest potential.
I know of many such stories where the children went on to achieve great things as long as someone believed in them. Benson Tan, who has ADHD and intellectual disability, displayed strong potential in swimming. However, he was told that he could not take part in the national inter-school swimming championship with other students from mainstream schools. His mother Mimi believed in her son and appealed many times for Benson to be given the chance. The Ministry of Education eventually gave the approval.
“I cried upon learning of the approval. The barrier had finally lifted and he was the only special needs swimmer in those swimming lanes,” she said. Benson has not looked back since. He is now an accomplished swimmer with numerous medals from the ASEAN Para Games as well Special Olympics.
You can read about their story here.
A couple of years ago, a number of persons with intellectual disability from Movement for the Intellectually Disabled in Singapore (MINDS) initiated a vacation to Perth, Australia by themselves, with the support from volunteers. The vacation enabled them to expand their horizons and practise their independent-living skills beyond their community through.
Very often, our instinct is to protect them but in fact, the possibilities are endless if we give them space and acceptance. We should not let our perceptions of what children with disabilities can do limit what they can really do.
They can do it. We just need to believe they can. Don’t judge them. Appreciate their rhythm. Don’t limit their possibilities.
If all of us believe in at least one other person (with or without disabilities), we will all be able to live in a more inclusive society.
Let’s not write anyone off and let’s give everyone a chance. A society that is more inclusive for of children with disabilities is a more gracious society for all of us.