UMF special education professor returns from Singapore


FARMINGTON — A small country with a plan for progressive strides in its economy, infrastructure and education recently gleaned wisdom from a special education professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Loraine Spenciner recently returned from a nearly three month stay at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University where she participated in training a group of people to help children with disabilities succeed in mainstream classrooms.

“The government of the Republic of Singapore has made a real commitment,” Spenciner said of its attempt to move children out of special-purpose schools and into regular classrooms.

The change is partially driven by the fact that the prime minister has a child with autism, and by parents, who are electing to register their children in local public schools even if they don’t have the support of a special education teacher, she said.

Previously, most children with disabilities in Singapore were enrolled in these special-purpose schools where they were separated according to disability, she said. There were several schools just for autistic children, others for Down syndrome students and special schools for low vision or blind students.

Spenciner was invited by Singapore’s National Institute of Education because of her extensive background in preparing education majors at the college level in using assistive technology to help all children learn together.

Assistive technology devices are items adapted so a person with a disability that can increase or maintain their function, she said. Examples include an adapted pencil or a knob added to a protractor that allows a person with the use of only one hand to easily pick it up and put it down where they want, she said.

Spenciner has written several grants, over the years, for a collection of assistive technology items. Now housed in UMF’s Education Center, the Kalikow Curriculum Materials Center hosts the largest collection of AT items in the state and one of the largest in New England. It includes items used from infancy to adulthood and can be borrowed by local teachers, she said.

Her work co-authoring a textbook led to her invitation to Singapore. Her international publisher brought awareness of her work with publications throughout Southeast Asia. She has also provided teacher training at conferences in Indonesia and the Komi Republic of Russia.

Spenciner and her husband found their time in Singapore exposed them to a progressive small country with an integrated plan for success.

“It’s a diverse society of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian people, a wonderful mix of people, culture and language,” she said. “It was amazing how the government has encouraged tolerance and people from different backgrounds to live with each other. Singapore is for everyone.”

The government paid to retrain workers when the economy bottomed out and people were unemployed. When the economy improved, new skills were in place, and the government had set a vision of what it wanted and where it wanted to go, she said.

The small island imports water from Malaysia but is instituting a water reclamation project that will make it self-sufficient. A state-of-the-art facility will reclaim fresh water from river and seawater.

Casinos, hotels and many construction projects are part of its booming economy, she said. Their public transportation is easy to use and spotless, apartment buildings are refurbished every few years and technology is present everywhere.

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