A Nurturing Environment for Differently-abled Students in Penang


EDUCATION IS CONSIDERED by most of us to be a universal right. However, the ability to make use of opportunities, especially at the tertiary education level, does vary, be it due to financial difficulties or reasons of physical and mental ability. Penang Monthly explores what the situation is for such students at our local institution of higher learning, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM); and speak to Tan Chin Chin, a USM alumnus, and to Andrea Pui Jia Hui and Felicia Pui Jia Yin, two visually-impaired sisters who have over the years been prominently featured in local headlines for their outstanding academic achievements.

Universiti Sains Malaysia

USM was inaugurated on June 1, 1969. How does one of the oldest and most prestigious higher education institutions in Malaysia manage the special needs of differently-abled students?

ccording to Prof Dr. Faisal Rafiq Mahamd Adikan, who is currently serving as the 8th Vice-Chancellor of USM, the university warmly welcomes students who are differently-abled. “It is our duty to provide support and aid to the disabled. The mantra of USM is to provide this group of students with the best support available during their time at the university,” he says.

USM statistics show that there are 49 differently-abled students doing courses at the university. These students have a variety of impediments ranging from physical infirmity, visual impairment, speech and hearing disability, to mental health issues. As a rule, these students are assigned to study and live together with ordinary students. This is aimed at turning the caring and assisting of them into a communal responsibility, rather than just the responsibility of specific professional groups.

The Vice-Chancellor of USM Prof Dr. Faisal Rafiq Mahamd Adikan. Photo: USM.

Challenges for the university management concern issues of mobility, hostel requirement, class attendance, academic performance, public amenities and emotional quotient. These are addressed through two platforms namely, the Senate consisting of the deans, and the University Academic Committee led by the Academic Deputy Vice-Chancellor and consists of the deputy deans. “We ensure that the differently-abled students are well cared for. We provide counselling service, hostel accommodation and amenities specifically tailored for them,” says Dr. Faisal.

In educating differently-abled students, USM emphasises physical adaptation instead of curriculum adaptation. Lecturers are notified of the presence of differently-abled students enrolled in classes, of the assistance available to facilitate the teaching process, and of university policy governing the rights of differently-abled students. USM also offers lecturers “Continuous Professional Development Points” and encourages them to take up courses about teaching differently-abled students.

The Centre for Development of Academic Excellence (CDAE) in USM has also been looking into the latest technologies for teaching and learning for differently-abled students, and arranges two-week camps for incoming lecturers, mentored by people whose expertise include knowledge about the education of differently-abled students.

Currently, platforms that facilitate the teaching and learning process for differently-abled students include e-learn. This allows students, especially those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism, to access slides and notes with relative ease. E-learn also enables dialogues, discussions and questions to be saved for future reference. Then there is Job Access With Speech (JAWS). JAWS automatically reads out computer contents. More recently, USM’s School of Educational Studies introduced the world’s first braille text in Malay language.

"The mantra of USM is to provide this group of students with the best support available during their time at the university.”

“We have also introduced a buddy system where ordinary students are assigned rotationally to assist differently-abled students in classes and in extracurricular activities,” says Dr. Faisal.

There is a special committee consisting of differently-abled students known as Secretariat Insan Istimewa which mediates between differently-abled students and administrators. Then there is the OKU Cluster, under the purview of The Division of Industry and Community Network headed by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation, which provides information about the rights and the environmental needs of the differently-abled community to the public and the university. Consequent to these initiatives, toilets, staircases, lifts and car parks on campus are being designed for accessibility.

USM was recently Malaysia’s first public tertiary education institution to receive a grant from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to flag off a Community Rehabilitation Centre. This will provide the differently-abled community as well as students majoring in special needs education with a venue where their ideas on educating persons with special needs can be tested.

“Based on the old saying ‘It takes a village to educate a child’ I would paraphrase and say that it takes us all to make the empowering of the differently-abled community a reality,” says Dr. Faisal.

The Perspective from Tan Chin Chin

Penang-born Tan Chin Chin has been working at USM’s Institutional Development Division and Institutional Planning and Strategic Centre (IPSC) as a Social Research Officer since 2008, after graduating from USM with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, she experiences insurmountable difficulties in movements and in speech. She has therefore been unable to keep daily routines that the rest of us take for granted, and she has to be assisted by her mother. Be that as it may, she is determined to excel in her academic undertakings, and is in fact able to write and use a computer.

“After passing my STPM, I registered myself to study in USM in 2003 after having been told by several of my differently-abled friends who were also studying there that USM has an inclusive learning environment for differently-abled persons,” says Tan. “But when my application for USM was granted, my parents began to express grave concerns over my ability to adapt to the study environment there,” she adds.


Tan Chin Chin working from her desk at USM. Photo: USM.

“However, I was fortunate enough to have one of the most dedicated lecturers of USM by the name of Dr. Tiun who immediately brought me and my family on a campus tour where we were shown how friendly the overall environment was towards differently-abled students,” she says. “After much encouragement by Dr. Tiun, I decided to stay on campus to ease the burden of commuting to campus every day,” she adds. Her parents’ concerns began to vanish after they witnessed how inclusive and harmonious the learning environment at USM was.

“I was immediately given comprehensive guidance and assistance by one of the orientation student coordinators as well as a friendly differently-abled student during the orientation week. They were all more than helpful in directing me to my classes and guiding me around,” she says.

“I was also assigned a hostel room at the ground level that was modified for differently-abled students. It had specially-designed furniture, electric switches that were installed low, special toilets as well as wheelchair ramps,” says Tan. “With that, I was able to live independently without much difficulty on campus,” she adds.

Ordinary students were also assigned to live at the same hostel unit together with differently-abled students such as Tan. “Apart from being able to socialise with ordinary students, the accommodation arrangement also enabled me to seek assistance from them whenever the need arose, such as taking away food or shopping for essential items,” says Tan.

“My overall experience at USM tells me that it is indeed a university that really cares for the welfare of differently-abled students and the level of acceptance for differently-abled students here in USM is very high among its students and staff,” says Tan. “I believe this is the result of years of awareness campaigns and activities,” she adds.

Importantly, USM administrators were open to suggestions and complaints from differently-abled students.

Andrea and Felicia Pui

Andrea Pui Jia Hui and Felicia Pui Jia Yin are two visually-impaired girls who made it into the headlines several times for their impressive academic results. As alumni of St. George’s Girls’ School (SGGS) and USM, they have both had positive and negative experiences during their time at these institutions. “During our time at SGGS, despite having a resource room that prepares textbooks in braille, we could not always have our books ready in time as the process of translating them into braille took time. As a result, we could not ask for other extra reading materials to be brailled when needed,” say Andrea and Felicia. “As for our time in USM, things were better because we no longer had to depend on braille books and instead we used materials in digital format, and these were more readily available,” they add.

“The thing that we enjoyed most in USM was the conducive study environment such as its lecture halls, tutorial classrooms and libraries that are so accessible to differently-abled persons, flexible schedules, and the freedom to choose our preferred subjects for our minor and elective courses. These are privileges enjoyed by all USM students,” say Andrea and Felicia. They do suggest though that more pedestrian walkways connecting different faculties in the campus should be paved to aid walkability.


Andrea Pui Jia Hui and Felicia Pui Jia Yin.

“Our teachers and lecturers were very helpful in both SGGS and USM, we are indeed very grateful for their dedication,” they say. “We are also glad that we could study together with our course mates. This contradicts the widespread belief that differently-abled students are taught separately there,” they add.

During their time at SGGS, only examination papers that had been previously translated into braille would be available to them in studying for the school examinations. At USM, all previous examination papers were in digital format. “During our exams, the exam unit would provide us with laptops with screen reader software and we would handle questions by typing out our answers. Once we had completed a paper, the invigilator would print it out immediately for marking purposes,” they say.

Andrea and Felicia were also able to fully immerse themselves in campus life just like everyone else, and participate in drama plays and musical performances.

What they have found out is that life outside of high school compounds and university campus grounds is not as rosy. They say, “From our experience, we honestly think that people here have a very low level of awareness towards people with visual impairment. Most of them held negative perceptions about people like us.

“We really hope for a higher level of public acceptance of people with visual impairment and other disabilities in the working world. We have proven that we are able to perform our duties as productively as everyone else. We also wish that people will be less discriminating and will drop their negative perceptions,” they add.

Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.

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