Hospitable classrooms, inclusive society

Handicapped boy searching books at library in school

The Straits Times reported on 4 Nov 2016 that the government would be extending the Compulsory Education Act, which was passed in Parliament in 2000, to special needs children. This will take effect in 2019.

Minister for Education (Schools) Mr Ng Chee Meng said that this is “an important milestone in Singapore’s continuing drive towards national inclusiveness”. He added that it “is a reaffirmation that every child matters, regardless of his or her learning challenges”.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) also gave the assurance that no special needs child will be denied of education because his or her parents are unable to pay the school fees.

The move by the government to ensure that all special needs children have access to education is a step in the right direction. It must be welcomed and supported by all who are committed to the common good.

In recent decades, there has been a growing acceptance in Western societies of the role that public schools can play in providing special education to children with learning disabilities. According to some commentators, this development is due to the changing attitudes towards disability and the rise of professional and parental advocacy.

Christian writers on special education like Professor David W. Anderson have long argued that special needs children should be given the opportunity to enjoy the full benefits of an education. In addition, they have insisted on the inclusion of such children as equal members of the classroom community.

Some writers have attempted to envision special education within the framework of a Christian theology of reconciliation. Others have allowed the Christian conceptions of inclusion and interdependence to inform and shape their approaches.

However, in thinking about the inclusion of children with special needs in our schools and classrooms, it is the Christian virtue of hospitality that has proved most helpful.

In her book about hospitality in the Christian tradition, Christine Pohl explains that “the distinctive quality of Christian hospitality is that it offers a generous welcome to the ‘least’, without concern for advantage or benefit to the host”.

Amy Oden helpfully adds that “hospitality does not entail feeling sorry for someone and trying to help…” To understand hospitality in this way is to cause it to degenerate into condescension, where the host becomes the hero and the guest the victim.

As a reflection of divine love, Christian hospitality is neither condescending nor coercive. Rather, true hospitality acknowledges the dignity of the other by respecting the other’s freedom and difference.

Applying this virtue to education, Anderson wrote: “Hospitality, seen in the teacher’s approach to students, and as characteristic of the classroom milieu, conveys welcome, acceptance, and belonging to all students.”

The practice of hospitality in the classroom and the school where there are disabled students requires a radical shift in perspective and orientation. It requires a re-visioning of people with disabilities, and an honest interrogation of the way in which we have understood disability itself.

In the hospitable classroom, the primary focus must be the student, not his disabilities as such. Of course, this does not suggest that the student’s disabilities are unimportant. Rather, it acknowledges the fact that the disabilities of the student and the limitations they impose are not the totality of his being, but one aspect only.

It recognises that disabled students share many things with their able-bodied classmates, that they are “more like the other students than different”, as one writer puts it.

In a hospitable classroom, positive attention is given to all students, and necessary accommodations and modifications are made for the disabled so that they can participate in all activities. As Nilsa Thorsos has written, in this welcoming environment, special students are made to see that “they too are included and required to make significant contributions to society”.

Inclusive education disabuses us of the deep-seated assumption that children – as well as adults – must be ‘normal’ if they are to contribute to society. As Norman Kunc points out, inclusive education compels us to “search for and nourish the gifts that are inherent in all people”.

It is only when a society recognises the intrinsic worth of every person (including the disabled), and welcomes and accepts them, that it can be said to be truly inclusive.

Dr Roland Chia –

is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (