In the past, many Hong Kong children with learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia, were often unfairly deemed lazy and received no professional support due to a lack of understanding in the community and teaching profession.
Thanks to the Manulife Centre for Children with Specific Learning Disabilities (MCCSLD), set up in 1998, public awareness has been enhanced. Through the facility, an increasing number of Hong Kong schoolchildren with SLD, estimated at 10 to 15 per cent of the local student population, are receiving help from parents and teachers.
The centre was the first locally established institute to enhance understanding and awareness of SLD and provide support to schools and families.
"We believe our future generations are our greatest assets. We care about their health, education and wellbeing, and make young people one of our core focuses in our corporate social responsibility programme," says Helena Lee, assistant vice-president of corporate communications, Manulife (International), which funds the centre.
It does extensive research on the special educational needs of children and adolescents with SLD and their psychological difficulties, Lee adds.
Based on the findings of research projects, the centre develops and provides professional services, such as assessment, training and counselling, catering to schoolchildren with SLD, their parents and teachers at primary and secondary schools. One such course, aimed at Chinese- and English-language teachers, was commissioned by the Hong Kong Education Bureau, Lee says.
The centre also organises a Saturday literacy enhancement programme for children with SLD to overcome their difficulties in learning Chinese and English, says Alice Lai, associate professor at the department of applied social sciences of Polytechnic University (PolyU).
"Teachers who have received training at our centre work with the children with SLD under the supervision of professors from PolyU and overseas. This programme is also part of the practicum for the teachers," says Lai, who has been in charge of the centre's operation since 1999. Other projects include an online assessment programme and exercises, and summer camps and seminars for children and their parents.
The students are referred through their schools, parents and social workers, Lai adds. "Our Saturday family support programme teaches parents skills in providing home tutoring to children with SLD," she says.
In addition to providing funds, Manulife encourages students to participate in its corporate events that help them to develop communication and social skills, Lee says.
Lai says many employees - from top management to rank-and-file - volunteer to help in the Saturday family support programme and summer courses.
"The relationship is more than just donors and beneficiaries. Employees provide a lot of moral support and encouragement to us as well," Lai adds.
The Manulife Centre has held about 300 events for about 8,000 SLD students.
It has also worked with 6,000 parents, teachers and other in-service professionals.
In 2000, it launched screening tools to identify children with SLD.