Teaching by native English speakers can benefit intellectually disabled students, say educators and parents

Their comments follow a High Court ruling that denial of such English teaching for 5,000 disabled students is discriminatory and unconstitutional

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 9:00am

Having the opportunity to be taught English by native speakers can benefit Hong Kong students with intellectual disabilities and help them with future job applications, according to educators and parents

The High Court ruled on Friday that a policy denying more than 5,000 disabled students an opportunity to study English with native speakers to be “direct discrimination” that was unconstitutional and prohibited under the law.

In 2011, the Education Bureau rejected a school’s application to allow intellectually disabled students to join the Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) scheme primarily because it did not cover such schools in view of their special curriculum, different educational needs and not being included as schools offering English as part of the basic education curriculum framework.

The bureau explained that there would be only low-level English teaching in such schools, making the provision of a full time NET teacher unjustifiable economically.

The NET scheme is open to schools for students with physical disabilities, but not intellectual disabilities.

Our special-needs kids need more support, Hong Kong parents and lawmaker urge government

Maria Wong Yuen-ping, the former principal of special school Hong Kong Red Cross John F. Kennedy Centre, recalled that intellectually disabled students from her former school were very lively with NET teachers.

“In my former school, we had both students with physical and intellectual disabilities, so we had access to NET teachers,” she said.

“When [the intellectually disabled pupils] were with foreigners, they were motivated to learn. In fact, they were even less shy than mainstream students and would sing along and talk [to the NET teachers].

Anita Yeung Yuk-mui, a mother with an intellectually disabled child, pointed out that special needs students might find a job that required them to speak English, such as being a waiter.

Her son, Lee Sai-ho, 25, is now an artist with the Arts with the Disabled Association and enjoys performing songs including English ones.

She recalled how her son was not given an opportunity to learn English properly back in school.

It was a chance encounter that prompted him to take up English. Yeung enrolled him in a singing class, which ended up teaching mainly English songs.

“Learning English exposed him to more songs, his interest, making him more confident,” she said.

“While my son did not get to learn English from a NET teacher, I hope future intellectually disabled students can benefit from such a scheme. At least it gives them more opportunities to learn,” she said.

Holly Yu Hoi-yee, an English teacher at HHCKLA Buddhist Po Kwong School in Fanling, which provides special education to pupils with mild intellectual disabilities and was the school involved in the judicial review, was proud when her student, Tung Garland, 13, came third in a poetry recitation competition this year by reading an English poem.

Yu explained that while her school did not have NET teachers, they tried their best to help students learn English, such as by hiring a foreign English teacher once a week to conduct special classes.

“Having NET teachers can help local English teachers design curriculums,” she said.

“Local and native English teachers also teach in a different way. It would be good for students to experience something different, how it is like to communicate with a native English speaker.”

The Education Bureau has not indicated whether it will appeal against the court ruling, saying it would “study the judgment, seek legal advice ... and consider the way forward”.

Lawmaker-elect Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said he would press for legislation to provide equal opportunities for the intellectually disabled in the new Legislative Council session.

He noted that a draft law he and fellow legislator-elect Dennis Kwok Wing-hang submitted in the last Legislative Council session was not passed.

Cheung quoted the government as saying the policy would incur additional annual expenditure of HK$2.5 billion and would require changes to government operations.