Why S’pore needs disability legislation

TODAY Comment & Analysis, 3 December 2013

by Alvan Yap

If I toss a piece of tissue paper on the ground and I am caught in the act, I could be fined S$300 as a first-time offender. Repeat offenders face increasingly hefty fines, up to a staggering S$5,000. I could also be sentenced to perform, as a National Environment Agency (NEA) press release puts it, “embarrassing” and “onerous” Corrective Work Orders which involve picking up litter in public places.

Now, say, I deny service to a blind person with a guide dog at my business, or prevent access for a wheelchair user to my workplace, or refuse to sponsor my deaf employee for a training course without valid reasons. What are the consequences for such blatantly discriminatory acts?

Perhaps what is most shocking is how unsurprising the answer turns out to be: Nothing embarrassing or onerous will befall me, in theory and in practice. Most likely, nothing will happen to me at all. (The above scenarios are not hypothetical. Such incidents have happened and are still happening.)

And in this glaring disparity lies the impetus and key justification for having a disability rights law.

PROS AND CONS
Explaining why Singapore should enact anti-discrimination laws is the easy part: Following our ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the next and logical step would be to pass laws to guarantee and protect the rights of the disabled minority among us. That much seems obvious, if not long overdue.

What might be less apparent to most people is that passing such laws is not a seamless or inevitable, much less immediate, development.

First, some feel such legislation is impractical because it impinges on the realm of moral and ethical values. And this is true — kindness and compassion cannot be legislated. Nor can they be enforced. It follows, then, that moral suasion, raising public awareness and promoting civic consciousness are more realistic ways to bring about change.

This view, however, fails to take into account the many practical measures, backed by legislation or an authority, that can be undertaken to improve the lives of the disabled. The Building and Construction Authority’s Code on Accessibility is one stellar example. Just imagine how a Media and Development Authority Code on Accessibility could benefit blind and deaf consumers of broadcast media.

We should also not fall into the trap of thinking those with disabilities are somehow allowed only two mutually exclusive options — either legislation or public education. Why not both?

This dual-track strategy has been done: Look no further than the Government’s anti- littering strategy. Besides the use of laws (and harsh penalties) as a blunt weapon, the NEA also takes the soft approach via public education and social pressure (the annual Clean and Green campaign has been running for 45 years).

Likewise, disability legislation would have both deterrent and symbolic value. We cannot nab every litterbug or penalise every discriminatory act, but deterring would-be culprits and punishing offenders are not the sole purposes of legislation. It has another crucial, yet often overlooked, role. It implicitly expresses what the Government and, by extension, society value — the cleanliness of the environment, the rights of people with disabilities and other issues so regulated.

The anti-littering law also targets the recalcitrant minority, rather than the law-abiding majority who do not litter. A disability rights law would have a similar impact.

IT’S ABOUT RIGHTS, EQUALITY
Others argue that we already have the comprehensive Enabling Masterplan to cater to the disability and special needs communities. Would this not obviate the need for legislation?

The masterplan, in summary, identifies the gaps in the social welfare system pertaining to the needs of people with disabilities and makes recommendations to resolve them. It accordingly adopts a predominantly service-oriented approach.

On other hand, the CRPD, at heart, is about affirming the rights of people with disabilities to independent living, equal access and equal treatment in all aspects of life, enabling and enforcing these rights through legislation and other measures. Without laws backed with teeth and bite, there is no onus on recalcitrant culprits to change their behaviour and attitude.

Some urgent needs are also not addressed by any existing guidelines. Take, for instance, the issue of the quality of support for students with disabilities in most institutes of higher learning: Any provisions for their needs are on an ad hoc basis and based solely on the institution’s goodwill and discretion. To be more precise, it depends on the kindness and efforts — which may not always be forthcoming — of individual administrators, lecturers or other staff.

This is clearly not an ideal situation, as it subjects the student with disability to much uncertainty and anxiety. Why not legislation or a binding requirement, as in many Western countries that require educational institutions to provide reasonable accommodation at no additional cost?

BABY STEPS FORWARD
Disability rights laws are not new concepts, as the examples of the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States show. Nor are they restricted to western countries; China, Malaysia and Japan have such laws too.

To allay concerns over the potential for abuse of any such law by freeloaders or fraudsters and address the fears of businesses about possible compliance costs, it should be precisely targeted and worded in the following areas: How disability is defined; what actions (or inaction) comprise discrimination; areas and situations in which the disabled are protected; the concepts of “reasonable accommodation” and not causing “undue hardship” to providers; exemptions and exceptions to the law; penalties for violations; and mechanisms for meditation and out-of-court settlements.

Existing legislation we can study, adapt and adopt from are the Americans with Disabilities Act, the United Kingdom’s Equality Act and Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, which are regarded as being the gold standard. These are admittedly not flawless pieces of legislation. The upside is, we have the benefit of learning from their shortcomings, fine-tuning provisions and plugging loopholes.

Not all of these ideas can be implemented overnight due to resource, manpower or expertise constraints. But this should not be a reason to shy away from considering a disability rights law. The Government could publicly commit to such legislation, allowing for implementation to follow a time frame which accounts for existing limitations.

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year also marks Singapore’s historic ratification of the CRPD. Let us work together to ensure these signify the beginning of a new era for the local community of persons with disabilities. And let us quicken our pace, just that bit more, towards a truly inclusive society.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alvan Yap is deaf and has worked in the education, publishing and social service sectors. The world marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities today.

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