Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Coming out of darkness

The three subjects of a documentary released this week by the National Science Council show the limits and the potential of children with disabilities that many would view as insurmountable

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

At the end of a long hallway in a corner of the Huei-Ming School and Home for Blind Children (私立惠明盲童育幼院) on Thursday a remarkable blind and autistic 21 year old named Lu Wen-kuei (呂文貴) was leading a small group of classmates in practice for an upcoming musical performance. "One, two, let's go," Wen-kuei shouted in English and the students erupted in an ear-splitting cacophony of drums and cowbells led by Wen-kuei on the keyboard, who segued the noise into a rendition of Tequila.

When the song was over, he smiled and shook his head and joked about the dissonance, clearly exasperated in a good-natured way at his classmates, none of whom share his talent to listen to a song once or twice and be able to play it back on a variety of instruments.

Wen-kuei has what is known as savant syndrome, a rare condition, congenital in his case, in which the person has prodigious talents in certain specific fields -- usually music, art or extreme memory capacity -- contrasting markedly with the severity of his or her other disabilities.

Wen-kuei, for example, is blind, mentally retarded and autistic, but has a repertoire stored in his mind of hundreds of songs that he can play on a flute, piano, violin or almost any other instrument he's taught to use.

The unusual combination of severe disabilities and savant syndrome in Wen-kuei has made him one of three subjects of a documentary film titled Chasing Dreams in the Dark (黑暗中追夢) released earlier this week by the National Science Council and being distributed through the Huei-Ming School. The film is the fruit of a two-year research project into the educational potential of children with multiple disabilities carried out by Professor Wan Ming-mei (萬明美) of Changhua Normal University.

In the dark

"The main priorities for improving the situation for disabled students are expanding educational opportunities, improving the hardware to cater to their specific needs and training professionals to work in the field," Wan said. "A lot has been done, but there's always room for improvement."

The struggle to reach out to these children and in some cases discover their islands of unique talent falls mostly on families and the staff at institutions like the Huei-Ming School, or the scores of regular public schools that take on students with disabilities.

The Huei-ming School, with an enrollment of over 200 resident students, is the largest and only private institution in Taiwan offering full-time curricula for students aged 3 to 25 with multiple disabilities. The school was founded with a grant by the Christian Children's Fund in 1956, but currently operates mostly on donations raised domestically. About 20 percent of the school's annual budget is provided by the Ministry of Education.

The school's principal Chen Lee-yu (陳麗玉) is less impressed by the government's efforts to provide educational opportunities for children with disabilities, and said disabled children's needs require additional investments.

"The government has never thought these children are worth investing many resources in," she said, despite a strong teacher-to-student ratio in special education programs in Taiwan of approximately one to four. The Huei-Ming school maintains approximately a one-to-two ratio of teachers to students.

Disabled children are required to attend some form of classes, but current structures to help the children acquire skills applicable to a money-earning job and a life of relative independence are incomplete and require greater numbers of dedicated professionals, Chen said.

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