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Ministry looking at inclusive preschool model for special needs children

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The government is looking at whether it is practical to have an inclusive model where children with special needs get to attend pre-school with other children.


THE government is looking at whether it is practical to have an inclusive model where children with special needs get to attend pre-school with other children.

This way, children with special needs will be able to develop age-appropriate social and communication skills, while those growing up alongside their peers with special needs will learn to understand and accept differences at a young age.

Announcing this in Parliament yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Tan Chuan-Jin said: "Such a model will need to be supported by LSEds (Learning Support Educators) and early intervention teachers." His ministry will be building up a pool of 200 LSEds over the next five years to provide targeted intervention and support for children with developmental needs in preschools.

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Mr Tan said early intervention remains "a key area of focus for children with developmental needs" so doctors and pre-school teachers in the neighbourhoods will be trained to spot and screen children who are not hitting their developmental milestones.

He said his ministry will work with the Health Ministry over the next few years to form a network of touchpoints across the health and pre-school sectors.

Mr Tan was responding to questions on the Third Enabling Masterplan, which highlighted the importance of building an eco-system of support for persons with disabilities, helping them to transition smoothly at different stages of their lives.

Already in place is the Developmental Support Programme (DSP) to provide learning support and therapy for children with mild developmental delays. The programme, which is available in the mainstream pre-schools, has helped about 4,000 children across 350 preschools.

"DSP will be expanded to another 50 pre-schools this year. We are also studying how it can be enhanced to support children with moderate developmental needs," Mr Tan told the House.

The Inclusive Preschool model was part of initiatives unveiled by MSF at its Committee of Supply debate to strengthen support for people with disabilities. Twenty-three members of parliament filed cuts for the ministry.

And with employment being "integral to enabling persons with disabilities to live independently and integrate with society", Mr Tan said the government "will continue to do more to improve employability and employment options, and support the acquisition of relevant skills".

He revealed that the School-to-Work Transition Programme, which was with five special education schools (SPED) in 2014, will be extended to more SPED schools and expanded from supporting about 30 students last year, to about 60 work-capable students a year by 2019. They include those with moderate and multiple disabilities.

People with disabilities (PwDs) can also tap on other schemes, such as the Assistive Technology Fund (ATF), to enhance their independence. The ATF was introduced in 2003 to defray the cost of assistive technology devices.

Mr Tan said that in the 2015 review, the government doubled the ATF lifetime cap from S$20,000 to S$40,000, and raised the monthly household per capita income from S$1,500 to S$1,800.

"We have broadened the scope of coverage. PwDs can now use ATF to purchase devices for rehabilitation or for assistance in daily living, in addition to work and education purposes. With these changes, the number of supported ATF applications went up from 175 in 2014 to about 1,600 in 2016," he said.

Not forgetting the elderly parents who are primary caregivers of older adults with disabilities, Mr Tan said the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and VWOs will develop a network of support for them.

In a media release, MSF said this includes setting up a Disability Caregiver Support Centre in 2018 to provide information, planned respite, and training. About 2,000 caregivers are expected to benefit from this over the next five years.

"Beyond initiatives and programmes, we need a mindset shift in the way we support the needs of fellow Singaporeans - especially those with more disadvantaged circumstances and different abilities," Mr Tan said.

He said those who are disadvantaged and have complex needs will feel the challenges of livelihood most acutely.

"Just providing the help is the easy part. Getting them to break out of the cycle is where the work is," he said, adding that the government has progressively strengthened the social safety nets.

Recognising that it can be taxing for these individuals and families to have to approach multiple agencies for help, and to repeat their stories, MSF is looking at how to use technology to streamline the issue without compromising on privacy.

For one, Mr Tan is looking to extend the pilot delivery of both social and employment assistance by the same SSO officer, to three more Social Service Offices (SSOs).

He said two of the 24 SSOs around the island already have social assistance, family services and employment services under one roof and the same SSO officer provides both social and employment assistance, an arrangement clients have found helpful.

And to help Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) build professional and organisational capabilities, the government and Tote Board will give up to S$100 million to the VWOs-Charities Capability Fund (VCF) over the next five years. The VWOs can tap into the fund to send staff for training here and overseas; review and refine their organisational processes and practices; and adopt technology to improve productivity.