Poster for workshop "Advancing Disability Services in Higher Education"The Singapore Management University received the Tote Board-Enabling Lives Initiative grant from SG Enable to provide professional development and to conduct research related to building capacity of Singapore postsecondary institutions to provide access to students with disabilities. The team from Singapore Management University, Office of Dean of Students (Diversity, Inclusion and Integration Unit), reached out to Carol Funckes, Chief Operations Officer with the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and me in the spring of this year, inviting her to provide professional development and consultation in Singapore. I was thrilled to also be extended an invitation to submit my resumé for consideration. Once the grant was awarded and we were selected to provide professional development and consultation, our work began. We worked collaboratively with the SMU project team to develop the training. The SMU team overseeing the project includes Jack Ho, Senior Assistant Director; Eugene NG, Manager; Hana Ngieng, Training and Development Manager; and Nix Sang, Research Associate.

To prepare for the workshops, the team at SMU helped us understand the local context to ensure the training we provided met the needs of Singaporean service providers. The profession of disability services in higher education is fairly new to Singapore. Without a law such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, disability advocates rely on gaining influence through education and culture change in order to provide access to students with disabilities. Jack Ho describes it as “an environment where it’s all carrots, no sticks.” Professionals report facing challenges from colleagues who lack understanding about disability and have concerns about the implications inclusion may have on course integrity. Also, without a law that requires institutes of higher learning to provide access, garnering resources and funding can be a challenge.

There are limited public funds available for students with disabilities. Singaporean students with physical or sensory disabilities attending two types of postsecondary institutes—polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs)—are eligible for Special Educational Needs (SEN) funds which assist with the costs of accommodations. The case is different for Universities. University students with disabilities which are not considered as physical or sensory disabilities have limited opportunities for public funding. Therefore, when institutions commit to providing access to students not eligible for these funds, the school is responsible to cover all of the costs. Gaining influence to prioritize funds for access and inclusion is definitely a challenge. There are signs that the MOE is adjusting its level of support based on the needs identified by the institutions working to provide access. Just before our arrival, the MOE announced an increase in SEN funds.

There are also ripple effects that have an impact on access. For example, since funding for sign language interpreters and CART providers is limited, there is less support for people to enter these fields, making it difficult to find access providers when the need arises.

Carol Funckes presents to disability service professionals in Singapore

Carol Funckes presents to disability service professionals in Singapore

The goal of this two-year grant-funded project is to advance disability services and equip professionals with tools, resources and guidelines to support their work. The project involves offering professional development as well as research efforts. Nix Sang is leading the research efforts, overseeing the collection of interview data and anecdotal case studies from disability service officers and providers across Singapore. This information will assist the team in developing a snapshot of the challenges and successes of the profession. This information, along with a review of practices internationally, will assist the SMU team as they develop guidelines that are specific to the local context.

Carol Funckes and I were thrilled and humbled to play a role in this project. Our contribution included the development (with support from the team) and provision of five workshops, held on September 27th and 28th on the SMU campus, and providing input to the team regarding common practices in service provision in the United States.

The overall event was titled “Advancing Disability Services in Higher Education.” The workshop descriptions from SMU’s publicity are provided below.

Melanie Thornton observes participants discussing in small groups

Melanie Thornton observes participants as they explore themes from the challenges they have identified

Overcoming Challenges of Our Profession: Without policies and standards in our support of students with disabilities, disability service officers in Institutes of Higher Learning face many challenges. Through facilitated discussions, this workshop will identify creative solutions to professional challenges in supporting students with disabilities on campus.
Improving Accessibility on Campus Through Accommodations: How do you decide on the extent of support for students with disabilities? What sort of requests do we consider as reasonable or unreasonable? This workshop will equip disability services officers with strategies to identify barriers and to provide appropriate student disability accommodations.

Participant provides an overview of their workgroups plans for working with stakeholders on improving physical access

A workshop participant provides an overview of ideas for working with stakeholders on improving physical access during this workshop activity

Designing Holistic Programmes for Our Institutions: Is your disability services programme structured, relevant and holistic? How do you track, measure and share your contributions at your institution? This workshop will introduce international disability services programme guidelines, as well as provide a framework with which we can develop our work plans.
Developing Institutional Capabilities by Engaging Students: With limited resources, disability services officers can benefit greatly from working with others to expand accessibility on campus. Students represent the largest stakeholder on most campuses. In this workshop, we will learn strategies to engage students in tackling barriers, as well as to expand peer support for students with disabilities.
Working Together: Strategies for Supporting Classmates and Friends with Disabilities: A half-day learning programme that will cover theoretical knowledge and practical strategies for providing peer assistance.

Nix, Eugene, Jack, Carol and Hana sit around a conference table with laptops and materials

Nix, Eugene, Jack, Carol and Hana discuss the evaluation results from the two days of workshops

Following the delivery of the workshop, Carol and I spent the day with the team debriefing the training, providing input on standard practices in the U.S. and learning more about and providing input on the service delivery practices at SMU and Singapore Institutes of Higher Education. The team was also gracious enough to spend time with us after hours showing us around Singapore and introducing us to local cuisine. Clearly the comments in travel brochures that Singapore is a foodie’s dream city are accurate, if not understated!

We left Singapore quite hopeful about the state of disability services in higher education. One of our major take-aways was that, despite the difference in the developmental timeline of disability access in higher education, the challenges Singaporean professionals face are not unlike those encountered by disability service providers and people with disabilities here in the United States. We remarked on the fact that many of the challenges identified by participants in the workshop would have also been listed if we were to conduct a similar workshop here in the U.S. (e.g., reluctance of students with disabilities to access services, concerns from faculty that accommodations advantage students with disabilities unfairly, and difficulty advocating for the necessary resources to provide access proactively). Our other insight was simply that the professionals we encountered were so very knowledgeable, thorough in their thinking and approach, and passionate about the work they are doing.

The primary difference between the two contexts is that in the U.S., ultimately professionals can lean on the law in order to ensure accommodations are implemented and access provided. That left us reflecting on the fact that we in the U.S. have much to learn from our colleagues in Singapore. As they work to provide access in the absence of a legal requirement, they will develop strategies that WE can learn from as we work to strengthen our practices here.


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