Vanessa Teo, 12, graduated from St. Anthony’s Primary School with straight Bs for her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in 2021.
She qualified for normal technical secondary education — a momentous milestone for her family and teachers alike.
Vanessa has Down syndrome.
This feat would likely have been far from reach if it wasn’t for the advocacy of special needs Associate Professor Levan Lim from the National Institute of Education (NIE). Dr Lim embarked on a two-year research, exploring the possibility of including children with Down syndrome in Singapore’s mainstream public education system.
Having four key programmes that span across an individual’s three life stages, the Integration Facilitation Support Programme (IFSP) was started in 2009. It is designed to support students like Vanessa in mainstream Early Childhood Development Centres and primary schools.
Even with support, it has not always been a smooth-winding road for Vanessa and her family.
Mrs Vivienne Teo, a mother of four, knew the risks that came with a late pregnancy at age 46 when she had Vanessa. During her first trimester, the ultrasound scan showed a Nuchal fold, which was an indication of a possible congenital condition.
It did not matter to Mrs Teo, who would not have aborted the pregnancy because of religious reasons. “It was a shock, but we lived day to day, and asked for a little bit of comfort here and there. DSA helped us a lot along the way,” she says.
Among other early intervention programmes, the association’s ISFP program was particularly helpful in ensuring Vanessa’s smooth transition into primary school — both academically and socially, Mrs Teo says.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) registered special education teachers under the programme offer one-to-one support under an intervention model — one hour in class alongside their peers, and one hour during their free period. With a monthly fee of $150, the programme remains financially viable for most families.
Working closely with classroom teachers and parents, ISFP teachers keep parents in the loop about their children’s progress and inclinations regularly, and may even accompany students on organised field trips.
For Vanessa, the programme supported her from the preschool level all the way up till Primary 6. She opted for foundation mathematics at primary 5, and took foundation English, Maths, and Science for the final exam.
Her mother gauges her standard to be the equivalent of a primary 4 normal pupil. “At primary 1 and 2, she couldn’t add or subtract and we were ready to take her out of mainstream education,” says Mrs Teo.
The social side of school life presented struggles as well. “Sometimes, she would be a bit stronger with her movements, and some of her peers would mistake it as a sign of aggression,” she adds, citing an incident when Vanessa was playfully demonstrating a kick and accidentally hitting one of her classmates, resulting in a complaint from the girl’s parents.
Thankfully, she says, Vanessa’s teachers understood that she didn’t know how to express herself or control her strength at times.
This is where ISFP teachers are essential in playing the role of coach, nurturing their students’ “entire being, rather than just the mind”, holistically cultivating the skills needed for them to better integrate into society, Mrs Teo says.
Having an affable disposition, Vanessa adopts a “happy-go-lucky” attitude when it comes to making friends. She would go up to ask her peers, “may I join you?”, and when the answer initially used to be “no”, she would wander off and be content with her own company.
As time wore on, she adjusted smoothly. “Somehow or other, things just clicked when she was in primary 3. Multiplication was her forte, and division followed easily,” says Mrs Teo.
Her peers also started to see her for her sunny personality. Regardless, Mrs Teo says that “special needs children will always be on the fringe”, especially as their peers mature in age and develop different interests as the years pass.
Vanessa, who clearly has a creative streak, enjoys arts and crafts because it allows her to use her imagination. English is her favourite subject as she indulges in “reading stories and writing letters” during her lessons.
When asked what she would like to be when she grows up, Vanessa resoundingly says, “a singer or an artist”, and proceeds to showcase her extensive collection of records and multi-coloured food caricatures.
Mrs Teo, however, has a much humbler goal for her daughter. “I just hope that when [my husband and I] are out of the picture, that she can hold a job and be independent, and not have to be looked after too much by her siblings,” she says.