Voices from the Field: Anne Sivanathan



Anne Sivanathan 

My message to colleagues around the world:
"...anything is possible if you have the right staff, cooperative parents, and a willingness to provide activities for children who otherwise would not have any outlets."

Country: Malaysia 
Job title: Founder and Executive Director
Sector:  Inclusive Education
Works with children: 3 years of age through adult
Years of experience in his role: 31 years

Anne is the Founder and Executive Director of The Inclusive Outdoor Classroom (IOC) - a voluntary organization that provides inclusive activity sessions for children of all ages, both with and without additional learning needs.


If you could send one positive message to your colleagues around the globe at these challenging times, what would it be?
Anything is possible even during a Pandemic. The IOC had as a guide a strong national policy framework responding to COVID-19. After a complete closure of all programs nationwide, openings were gradual and thoughtful. The IOC altered its policy to conform to the new norm. Before COVID-19, there was a 2:1 ratio of staff to students, and now with COVID accommodations, the ratio is 1:1. This is a result of children who are not used to being physically distanced from one another. Similarly, parents were encouraged to be independent of their children before the pandemic, and now parents must accompany their children during all activities. So, the message is anything is possible if you have the right staff, cooperative parents, and a willingness to provide activities for children who otherwise would not have any outlets.


If you could send one positive message to children and families/caregivers around the globe at these challenging times, what would it be?
With proper training and a highly-structured, developmentally-appropriate program, success can be obtained.

The IOC took long hours in preparing staff and parents. We did intense training both virtually and onsite for all staff. Besides, the IOC had a trial program session to inform best practices and appropriate policies. During the lockdown, parents were challenged. We found that parents were cooperative due to the challenges they faced with their children's behavior. 

A unique aspect of IOC is that the majority of the students have disabilities. As a result of their special needs, many of these students had initial difficulties with physical distancing, maintaining their masks, and sanitizing routinely.

Still, the task wasn't impossible. The IOC is considered one of Malaysia's premier inclusion programs for its ability to cope with these challenging times.

What are you learning during these times as an individual and a professional?
First of all, one must have passion and commitment to this work. You must be able to adapt at any given moment and be willing to alter what you planned.

Professionally the IOC learned that partnerships are essential. The IOC has an excellent working relationship with its local government. This public/private partnership has proven to be invaluable to the community. The IOC brings program knowledge and expertise, while the government provides in-kind space and services to the partnership. Together it is a perfect marriage.

Further, the IOC determined that there was a need to accommodate students who are wheelchair users. The state councilor, through the Municipal Council, constructed an accessible pathway. This is a first for an inclusive outdoor-based program in Malaysia.


What would you like people to know and understand about your work during the COVID-19 pandemic?
During this pandemic, our fundraising arm has been shortened because funders are hesitant. Funders are more likely to address emergency services such as food, shelter, unemployment, and dealing with severe poverty.

Due to the requirements resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have lessened our ratios, increased supplies (sanitizers and masks) while at the same time decreasing the number of students. Thus, the program is much more expensive to operate. Although COVID-19 impacts every walk of society, the IOC changes how Malaysia views inclusion generally and disability specifically. 

I also work with children living in poverty. The very nature of where they live is crowded. They are unable to socially distance, and often don't wear a mask or sanitize properly. Thus, they have a higher chance of contracting the virus.

Finally, although the IOC is a small community-based program, it significantly impacts Malaysia's policies and practices.


What concerns you the most now, and what concerns you most for the upcoming period?
My concerns revolve around the spread of the virus, and the impact on the families served. Currently, we are experiencing our second lockdown resulting in online training and assessments. I fear that my population will significantly regress, and we will have to start anew if the lockdown persists. However, even during the lockdown, the IOC is exploring touchpoints to engage families. It is not perfect, but this is the best we can do considering the circumstances.

I am also concerned about the students and their parents' overall wellness (mental, emotional, or physical). Parents have expressed that their children are bored, withdrawn, and some are exhibiting meltdowns and tantrums more often than usual. On the other hand, parents are feeling more anxious, stressed, and uncertain about their child's future.

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