by Dr Marissa Medjeral-Mills
The concept of inclusion is not a new one in Singapore. Many of us live and work alongside people of different races, cultures and religions. What is less familiar is the idea that inclusion should involve persons with disabilities.
Historically, persons with disabilities were hidden away from the public. Growing up in Singapore in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was rarely the case that I would see persons with disabilities in public or hear them spoken about in the media. Even if persons with disabilities were mentioned, they were often portrayed as objects of sympathy or charity. Persons with disabilities were believed to be suffering from an ailment and as such were not normal and seen as the ‘other’. I was lucky enough to attend a school that had a class for people with special needs and as such was able to form impressions of disability that were not solely based on the media and cultural biases. Even so, I will be honest and say that I was not completely comfortable with the concept of disability. I continued to make assumptions about the experience of being a disabled person that I now know to be wrong.
In recent years, the Government has made great efforts to try and support people with disabilities and more importantly, in my opinion, to change people’s beliefs about being disabled. The most significant step towards this change was the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in November 2013 and implementing the Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, which is the national policy to realise the goals of the CRPD. By doing this, the Government embraced the social model of disability, which views disability as the interaction between a person with some form of impairment and barriers in their surrounding environment. This is a change from previous models of disability because it does not locate the disability solely within the person. Additionally, this model puts the onus on society to identify and remove barriers. This model recognises the value that a person with a disability can add to society given the right support, which is different from viewing persons with disabilities as objects of charity who need lifelong care.
In collaboration with Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs), the Government has created a number of programmes to improve the education of persons with disabilities, increase employment opportunities, make public transport more affordable and accessible and offer more affordable healthcare. As someone who runs a VWO, the Disabled People’s Association, which advocates for the integration of persons with disabilities into society, I have welcomed the concerted effort to better the circumstances of those with a disability in Singapore. Although there is still work to be done in expanding the view of disability to include invisible disabilities such as chronic mental health conditions and those with developmental delay and intellectual disabilities, on the whole I am happy with what has been achieved in such a short space of time.
Yet, given the current preparations for the general elections in Singapore, I cannot help but wonder why not much has been said about persons with disabilities in the media, at political rallies and in party manifestos. Even more disconcerting is the lack of campaigning directed towards persons with disabilities. Due to the fact that voting is compulsory for all Singaporeans, persons with disabilities should have their votes courted by political parties. It is estimated that at least 97,200 Singaporeans have a disability and a significant number of them should be eligible to vote.
Even though persons with disabilities are a minority group in Singapore, members of this diverse community are citizens who deserve the right to have their needs and concerns addressed by those who would run the Government. It could be argued that not all persons with disabilities have the mental capacity to vote or to have an informed opinion about who to vote for. Yet, this misses the point. Treating persons with disabilities as a group of voters worthy of being campaigned to, regardless of their mental and/or physical capacity, is an important part of wholeheartedly including them in society.
One might say that campaigning to persons with disabilities as a group reinforces the idea that they are different from other Singaporeans, thus undermining their inclusion into society. However, to gloss over the fact that the disability community have unique needs would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Admittedly, it is a balancing act to treat persons with disabilities on an equal basis as any other Singaporean and at the same time address disability-specific concerns such as special needs education. Yet, this is not an issue that is unique to the disability community. It is possible to balance speaking to the needs of women in the workplace whilst not making women feel segregated from the rest of society. Much in the same way, persons with disabilities have a range of concerns ranging from disability specific ones to ones that affect the wider population. Recognising this is how voters with disabilities can be treated as any other citizen who should have their political support fought for.
Moving forward I hope to see the progress towards including persons with disabilities become more robust in nature. Inclusion is a journey of progressive realisation, where as a society we should constantly re-evaluate how far we have come and how much more can be done to integrate marginalised groups. I would love to see Singapore move from addressing the day to day needs of persons with disabilities to seeing how they can become more involved in the political process, both as voters and, in the future, as election candidates.
Dr Marissa Medjeral-Mills is the Executive Director of the Disabled People’s Association.