Special needs students face double trouble
Entering university has always been a challenge for students with special-educational needs, but this year may be the toughest yet.
Advocates have raised concern that more special-needs students could be passed over as universities are caught up preparing to cope with the 110,000 graduates who sat either the last A-level exam or the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam under the '3+3+4' academic reform.
The minimum entry requirements of passing grades in the four compulsory subjects of Chinese, English, mathematics and liberal studies under the system may also reduce these students' chances of entry.
For instance, a student with problems with spatial perception because of brain damage may lag in mathematics while performing well in computer studies. Those with learning difficulties might struggle with the other three core subjects requiring much reading and writing.
'It is a kind of negligence that universities have not made special provisions for them,' said Maria Wong Yuen-ping, founding chairwoman of the Special Education Society of Hong Kong. 'Universities are so busy preparing for the [new system] that they hardly have time to look after special needs students.'
Meanwhile, the number of special needs students aspiring to enter university has been rising since the government enacted its inclusive education policy in 1997. This year, 257 candidates in the A-level exam and 1,050 candidates in the HKDSE exam requested special help, such as extra time or to use screen readers.
Even for those who make it to university, life will not be easy as classes will be bigger.
'Inevitably, our university plans to put the two groups of students in the same class,' said Dr Kenneth Sin Kuen-fung, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's Centre for Special Needs and Studies in Inclusive Education.
'The attention received by special needs students may be reduced as a result and it may be more difficult for teachers to accommodate students' learning differences. Those with invisible barriers, such as the hearing- impaired, may not understand what the teacher says that well in a large lecture.'
Local universities lag behind many in the developed world in terms of accommodating such students, according to a study report released by think tank Civic Exchange in March. It called for flexibility in admissions criteria and curricula, and increased teacher training.
Only 257 special needs students were admitted into university last year, representing about 1 per cent of the first-year population, compared with 6.6 per cent in Britain and 11 per cent in the United States.
Mok Mei-ling, chairman of the Association for the Rights of Hearing Impaired Students, said apart from the challenge of large lectures, hearing-impaired students also faced the financial burden of getting hearing aides costing more than HK$10,000 a pair and FM radio-reception systems costing about HK$20,000 to help them take part in class.
'The hearing aides have a life span of three to four years and their maintenance costs are high,' Mok said. 'In overseas countries, each deaf student is assigned a case worker by the government until they complete their study, but not so in Hong Kong.'
Special needs students must persevere and work extra hard to complete their university studies, Mok said. Some, such as Sin, have suggested allowing the students more time to earn their degrees.
Having accepted 19 new special needs students last year, Polytechnic University could be better positioned to help graduates. It had a network of specialists drawn to provide customised help, said Dorinda Fung Chan Man-chi, the university's director of student affairs.
But she conceded that the university faced pressure in coping.
'We are more experienced in accommodating physically disabled students than those with special learning difficulties,' Fung said. 'But we have designated staff who will find out about the needs of each case at the start of the term.'