When Denise Phua discovered that her son was autistic more than 10 years ago, she fought for a more inclusive society and education for children with special needs.
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
Some people stumble into their destinies by a stroke of luck, but there are others, such as Denise Phua, who fall into it when faced with a tough challenge. Phua recently spoke about her career in special needs education at the monthly U@live forum organized by the National University of Singapore Office of Alumni Relations on Aug. 22.
She shared with the audience of NUS students and alumni about her work in blurring the divide between the abled and those with special needs. She is especially known for her work among those with autism in the areas of education, employment and social services.
Besides being involved on a full-time, voluntary basis as president of the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore), Phua, 52, also serves as school supervisor in two special schools—Pathlight School and Eden School. In 2006, she was elected as Member of Parliament in the Moulmein-Kallang GRC; she currently serves in the Kampong Glam ward, the very neighborhood where she grew up. She was also the winner of the 2005/6 “Great Women of Our Times, Education and Public Service Category” awarded by Singapore Women’s Weekly magazine.
FROM CORPORATION TO CHARITY
For over 20 years, Phua was a corporate high-flyer in Hewlett Packard Singapore’s human resource department. When the mother-of-two discovered that her son, Jun-Yi, was autistic at age 3, the option of migrating to a country where more established special needs education systems were in place was presented to her. But something in her heart called her to stay put in her homeland, to help those who did not have the same luxury of choice.
As with all worthy success stories, hers was one of small beginnings; in 1999, she started volunteering at ARC. The needs she witnessed led her and several volunteers to start Pathlight School in 2004, the first autism-focused school in Singapore offering an autistic-friendly education paired with mainstream academic curriculum, and reinforced with life readiness skills.
Drawing upon her extensive corporate management experience, Phua has helped grow Pathlight into one of the most progressive special schools in the region. As the team built upon a foundation of clear-cut positioning, branding, curriculum-refining and rigorous staff selection process, student enrolment grew from 41 students to 603 currently, with a long waitlist to boot. The school’s two core values are normalization—students are groomed with the aim of integrating them into mainstream society, and dignity—having the same access to education, employment opportunities and social space as any other typical child.
Speaking in brisk but impassioned tones, Phua projects an air of number-crunching shrewdness tempered by a maternal drive to see that no child gets left behind; it is perhaps this balance of corporate savvy and passion that has seen her replicating the same success at Eden School, formerly called the Singapore Autism School. Where once the school was faced with limited resources, Phua pushed through for funding, and slowly but gradually turned it around. “Now it is also acquiring a very long waitlist and sometimes we get ‘bashed’ for that. In a way, we are the ‘victims’ of our own success,” she says with wry smile.
BEING THE DIFFERENCE
In 2005, Phua resigned from her corporate job and delved into her voluntary work full-time. A year later, Phua was approached to be fielded as a political candidate. With the support of her husband, she took on the challenge, and won the Jalan Besar GRC.
Her proudest achievement by far is not within the political arena, but the implementation of the satellite model class, whereby students from both Pathlight and Eden attend classes alongside mainstream students in their schools. It gives the special needs students an opportunity to be integrated into society at an early age, while helping mainstream students learn to accept and live among those who are different from them.
Responding to forum moderator Viswa Sadasivan’s question about her using her political position to achieve many changes for her cause, Phua replied, “The parlimentary platform is good for getting direct access to policymakers, but most of the legwork is done on the ground and unseen from the public eye. There is a lot of hard work—the designing of the curriculum, the pedagogy—if we were not serious about what we do, we wouldn’t have gotten very far.”
On that note, she credited her group of staff and volunteers who do more than what their job descriptions call for. A question was raised from the audience about finding quality volunteers, to which Phua shared that the priority is always the mission over the volunteers. She lets her volunteers know exactly what they’re in for, and the level of commitment to be expected. “We don’t only need compassion, we need competence as well. These people, too, deserve more than the crumbs of our time—they deserve a professional standard of service. We’re not making money, but we’re making lives, and that’s even more important.”
Reiterating one of the key lessons she experienced through her work, she said, “It is important to remember that many of them do not want our pity; they want us to facilitate them in living a normal life, where they can work, have dignity and choices. In fact, they’re not objects of pity, to be seen once a year during CIP (Community Involvement Programme).”
Asked by Sadasivan about what she hoped to push for next, her reply came without hesitation. “I’m going to be really blatant about this. I don’t think there are enough people who want these children in the mainstream schools. If you’re a teacher, a principal or a person of influence, I want you to consider opening up your schools to these children; they’re part of the Singapore family, and they deserve a chance to be there. I need more satellite schools. I need a lot of them.”
Pathlight School: They Can Achieve
Started in January 2004 at Ang Mo Kio, Pathlight School serves primarily children with autism, aged 7 to 18 years old, who are cognitively able to access mainstream academics. The syllabus is an integration of special needs education and mainstream academics.
That very year, the school achieved a 100 percent passing rate for its first batch of PSLE students. In August 2005, it embarked on its first satellite class arrangement with Chong Boon Secondary School. The satellite model has since taken off at several other partnering schools.
In 2010, the team of students from Pathlight Secondary School bagged three awards at the National Youth Business Challenge 2010 organized by the Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Business & Accountancy. They competed against 28 other schools including Raffles Institution, ACS (Barker), and St Hilda’s.