Culture & Society

A compilation of articles, mostly reflection pieces, on Singapore’s progress towards a more inclusive society.

How Soldiers Saved The Day From A Greek Tragedy

Much like the Greek mythology of Melpomene (Tragedy), and Thalia (Comedy), our day spent at the Army Open House was one that saw us the tragedy of mankind, as well as the fortune of kindness.


Courtesy of IAC Publishing Labs

The day started off on the ugly side of Singapore. One that in the past, I’ve always gone above and beyond to make excuses for. People riding their motorbikes on the pavement? That’s just a Singaporean quirk. Cyclists blocking an entire street lane when there’s a perfectly good cycling path alongside? Oh, it’s no big deal. Cars blocking the path of a wailing ambulance? Maybe no one’s letting them change lanes.

But this day, I couldn’t make excuses anymore.

On this rather innocuous morning, much like any other, our members from the Disabled People’s Association (DPA Singapore) met at Bugis MRT Station so that their wheelchair accessible transport could take them to the Army Open House 2017.

Having to wait for the lift to descend so that our final member, David, could get in, and go up to the street level, I’m making small talk, biding the time. The lift descends, misses our level (probably cause it’s full).

“It’s fine, we’ll get it on the way up” I think to myself. The lift ascends, misses our level once again. This happens twice. We continue waiting. My small talk gets smaller, as the frustration in my mind weighs heavier. The lift finally opens its doors at our floor.

It’s packed. I hold onto the button, waiting for a few people to step out and make way. No one moves. Instead, I get back blank stares.

“Um, I’ll need some of you to take the escalators so that we can get in please”. Uncomfortable shifting, but no one leaves. Blank stares shift downward uneasily.

“Can some of you please take the escalators so at least this man can get in?”. A couple of people leave, the rest press themselves against the lift walls, but still there isn’t enough space for a motorised wheelchair to enter. I’m fuming at this point.


“Can some of take the escalators please? They’re right beside the lift.”

One bright young lady quips from the back, “He’s got enough space to squeeze in.” I stare at her, marvelling at her incredible apathy.


I turn to David and tell him to,”Go on ahead”. He hesitates because he might roll over their shoes. I prompt him “Go ahead David, they said it’s fine”, and he goes ahead. He’s barely able to fit in, with the shutting doors scraping the back of his wheels. I run up to the next level and guide him out.

The incident stays with me throughout the day. I replay the scene over and over in my mind.

But as the day progressed, and I was mentally preparing myself for more obtuse behaviour, something interesting happened.

We arrive at the F1 Pit Building where the Army Open House was taking place. We were immediately approached by a group of 5 NS men and women, who introduced themselves as our guides. And throughout the day, their kindness slowly erased the unpleasantness of the morning.

Anytime we, or our members required assistance, they would immediately get help. When it got too hot, cold drinks would magically appear before anyone said anything.  When the sun beat down on us, they gave us goodie bags and umbrellas. The day went like clockwork.

When questions arose, the interest in learning and concern was palpable. Body language is a mighty thing, and having soldiers who had spent their entire career in the army, not having much of an opportunity to interact with people from the disabled community, lean in and genuinely wanting to know how our members spent their day was heartening.


There was no hesitance when something needed to be done. It just… was done. They asked questions when they weren’t sure, and seemed genuinely interested in knowing more about our members. But most importantly, they knew that should any one of them need help getting something done, there would be three more of his buddies readily alongside him.Having come from the military myself, this was a rather defining moment, one which made me feel rather proud of my brothers in arms – of the proactivity, and the initiative. Of how they weren’t afraid to step forth and offer help just because they might make mistakes.

It brought to mind a line from the SAF Officer’s Creed, “I lead my men by example”.

And that was exactly what this was. Each and every soldier that day led by example. And in that moment, I realised that while the actions of the Selfish Lift People did have weight in how I saw us as a society, so did these group of men and women in green.

It was a day of mixed emotions. But I think at the end of it, we all went home a little calmer, knowing that maybe we can all rest a little easy, knowing our society was being watched over by people who cared about each and every one of us, disabled or not.


DPA Members & SAF Personnel at Army Open House 2017

CO-HACK 2017

In March, Disabled People’s Association (DPA) took part in CO-HACK 2017, the first ever community service themed hackathon organised by Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). A hackathon is a competition where, in a very short time span, participants are challenged to produce prototypes that can address problems posed by the organisers. CO-HACK 2017 focussed on persons with wisabilities, seeking to improve their accessibility to transportation, information, education and also their leisure life. This event brought together a total of 32 like-minded individuals with diverse skill sets and 7 teams were formed. With a time constraint of 48 hours, the teams rapidly worked through intensive prototyping, finally producing interesting, proof-of-concept prototypes that can potentially help make Singapore a more inclusive society.

DPA Consultant, Asha Karen, assisted the process by conducting Disability Awareness Talks* and facilitating discussion and feedback. DPA Executive Director, Dr Marissa Medjeral-Mills, sat on the judging panel.

DPA wanted to share with you some of the ideas and prototypes that the students came up with. With a bit of luck these ideas will go into further development and be available to the community of persons with disabilities and older persons in Singapore.



Team StepWise:

Having consulted people who use walking sticks, this team realised that descending the stairs is an intimidating challenge due to the need to stretch forward excessively. Stepwise is a walking stick that extends or retracts with the press of a button and was designed with the intention of enabling persons with a mobility disability to descend stairs in a less risky way.

For more info, email




Team Vibeats:

Vibeats is a fun game designed for the visually impaired with inspiration from Jubeat. The game relies on their reaction to catch and feel the beats from the vibrating buttons and could be used to train their reaction time. For more info, email



Team iRead:

iRead is an assistive technology wearable which aims to empower amputees & people born with only one arm by providing them the ease to be able to hold and read a book anywhere, especially where there is no surface for them to place the book on. For more info, email




Team Telolet:

Without the aid of bystanders, the simple task of flagging a bus becomes an arduous task for the visually impaired. Telolet is a system designed to be installed at bus stops to empower people with visual impairment to flag their buses independently. This would make bus transport more inclusive.

For more info, email



Team WTS:

WTS – The Wheelchair Dampening System is a solution borne out of the need to control the speed of a mechanical wheelchair’s descent down a slope. It is a modular attachment that can be fitted to any wheelchair and works by allowing users to set the speed of rotation of the wheelchair wheels via use of either an electrical Dynamo or mechanical gears. It eases the physical burden on wheelchair users such that they need not rely on physical strength to slow the rotation of the wheels. Such innovations would make life easier for wheelchair users and improve their accessibility and safety.

For more info, email


*Disability Awareness Talks (DATS): DPA runs this talk series, the aim of which is to spread awareness about disability and teach participants how to be inclusive in their language and behaviour. DATS is also relevant for organisations looking to make their policies and programmes more inclusive. DATS covers a broad range of topics from understanding the different types of disabilities to how to make your existing services more accessible to persons with disabilities. DATS is run by an experienced trainer either at DPA’s office or at the organisation’s office. For more information, please contact us at 67911134.

My Fear is to be Average

(A Review of In Search of Purpose Talk #14: “The Advantage of Being Disadvantaged”.)

Ad-man Adrian Tan has reached the top of his game in spite of – he might say because of – his ADHD, Dyslexia, OCD and a “tinge of Asperger’s”. So what makes him tick?

On 30 March 2017, I attended a talk by husband and wife team, Adrian Tan and Tan Shook Wah. Adrian is the founder of Ad Planet, Singapore’s largest independent advertising group, which has collected 400 creative awards, including honours at the prestigious Clio Awards and Cannes Lions. Much of its success is credited to Adrian’s ability to “think out of the box” and to defy conventions. Shook Wah is the founder of the Dare to Dream Scholarship, which focuses on helping special needs students with limited financial resources. It is anchored on the belief that education should be inclusive, and that all persons should have the opportunity to learn and realise their potential.

The evening was hosted by Ms Denise Phua, Mayor of Central Singapore District. In January 2015, Central Singapore Community Development Council (CDC) launched the In Search of Purpose Talk Series (ISOP), a TED-style inspirational talk series that seeks to help adults and youth discover their bigger role in society. Speakers, either local or overseas, are invited to share their personal stories and experiences about various topics in order to encourage the audience members to give back and be part of a more caring community in Singapore.

In her introduction, Ms Phua quoted Rick Warren (author of “The Purpose Driven Life”), who once wrote that we can live life at one of three different levels:  Survival, Success or Significance. Living a life of Significance means living “beyond oneself”.

Pastor Warren has written, “Significance in life doesn’t come from status, because you can always find somebody who’s got more than you. It doesn’t come from sex. It doesn’t come from salary. It comes from serving.”

Adrian Tan then took the stage and it was interesting to note that, although an attractive figure, he did not employ a particularly dynamic delivery style. It was the content of what he said that made the impact.

He pointed out that Singapore has no resources yet has produced many multi millionaires. He described Singapore as “the Monte Carlo of the East”.  As in many 1st world countries there is a large gap between rich and poor and the Income Divide needs to be narrowed.  He reiterated the question at the heart of ISOP talks: “What do we do with what we have?”

My impression was that the couple’s Christian faith informed both their professional and personal lives. “Belief Creates Possibilities”, the tagline of their award-winning ad company, is based on the bible text “Nothing is Impossible with God”.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” (Aldous Huxley)

Adrian pointed out that the advertising business is all about perception.  He went on to challenge the accepted view of what is “normal” and what is “not normal”.  He redefined “normal” as “ordinary” but by the end of the evening it was clear that he regarded “normal” as rather dull. It was tempting to agree with him.

He described his various “extraordinary” conditions and, in redefining them, appeared to give them credit for much of his success. He did concede however, that disadvantages are not “immediately advantages” and that he had to learn compensatory skills.

  • People with ADHD have a high level of energy. They are physically restless but also mentally nimble and flexible. Children with ADHD can be unfairly labelled at school as “worthless”, “bad”, “lazy”, “dumb”. Adrian quoted Vikram Khanna, an editor of the Business Times and his headline “The present can change the past”: The past does not define your future. Adrian averred that the converse belief can be a danger in the education system and that we must “always believe in everybody”.
  • People with dyslexia are lateral thinkers. They are visual thinkers. Steven Spielberg, film director, was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 60. He said, “It was the last puzzle part in a tremendous mystery that I’ve kept to myself all these years.” One teacher wrote of a student, “He is too stupid to learn”. That student was Thomas Edison. Interestingly, Ms Phua pointed out that Edison’s mother kept the letter from him and it was discovered years later.

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” (Albert Einstein)

Albert Einstein, the famous mathematician and physicist, had a learning disability and did not speak until he was three years old. He found maths and writing difficult at school but went on to become one of the best known scientists of all time winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

One of the most important staff members in an advertising company is the Creative Director. When a vacancy arises Adrian stipulates that the person who fills the post does not have a university degree as he wants someone who breaks the rules and does not follow the crowd. In the Q&A session, a member of the audience (a teacher by profession) asked the speakers what advice they would give to teachers, how they would like teachers to treat students with special needs. Adrian reiterated that (negative) labelling is a very big issue as it makes a person lose his/her confidence. “Kiasu-ism” pervades Singapore society – including education. People are scared to lose, so they do things that are safe, an attitude that militates against innovation and creativity.

  • People with OCD chase perfection and do not compromise that goal. They have an obsessive compulsion to conquer the new world, to set new limits and a new order. Adrian does not see OCD as a disorder and would rather the condition be termed Obsessive Compulsive Determination. He sees a world in disruption and believes that you must “disrupt or be disrupted”.

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

(Jack Welch, Chairman & CEO of General Electric, 1981-2001)

Adrian did not talk much about his “tinge of Asperger’s” (a term not clinically recognised after DSM V but which is still used by many people as it is more familiar and distinctive). He alluded to the fact that he finds social gatherings difficult and was determined to be successful in advertising without spending a lot of his free time entertaining clients. In fact, his priority is his family and he was proud that he managed to have dinner with his two sons 90% of the time during their formative years (0-21 years).

Tan Shook Wah then took the stage and described recent Ad Planet campaigns

  • In 2014, as part of Singapore Press Holdings’ “See the Big Picture” campaign, Ad Planet brought Stephen Wiltshire to Singapore. Stephen has savant syndrome and was described by Sook Wah as “a highly talented silent communicator”. He surveyed the civic district from a helicopter for half an hour or so then spent a few days sketching it from memory
  • In 2016, Singapore and Japan celebrated SJ50, 50 years of Singapore/Japan Diplomatic relations. Ad Planet presented
    • “A Stroke of Genius”, featuring Shoho Kanazawa, an acclaimed calligrapher who has Down Syndrome; and
    • “The Sound of Silence”, with classical pianist Azariah Tan, who is profoundly deaf
    • “Perception”, a video by celebrity photographer, N D Chow, features people with various special needs. Caregivers were very moved to see their charges in a different light and being presented in such a confident and positive way. Members of the production team and N D Chow himself had to broaden their skill set when dealing with people with special needs:

“We hope for a world that looks beyond disabilities, a world where disabilities are not perceived as no abilities. A world that is kinder. A world that is free of bias… “Perception” hopes for such a world.”

SJ50 Shoho Kanazawa, “A Stroke of Genius” –

SJ50 Azariah Tan, “The Sound of Silence” –

“Perception”, a video by N D Chow –

One audience member pointed out that many special needs people do not have the spectacular talents demonstrated in the course of the presentation. Shook Wah conceded that Adrian was privileged to be born to parents who had the means to support him. In 2013, in conjunction with La Salle College of the Arts, she founded the “Dare to Dream” scholarship for people who need financial help for their educational fees. One recipient, Isabelle Lim, a talented photographer, was in the audience. Isabelle has Nager Syndrome.

It was truly an evening celebrating the Extraordinary. Perhaps the unsung heroes of the evening (though mentioned in passing) are the parents who support their extraordinary children through the years and through all their challenges. On the “Perception” video, Isabelle Lim’s mother, Jacqueline, said and signed this:

“It’s always good to look at the bright side.

We try to stay positive.

Our perception is that we can still do it, despite our challenges.

Yes we can.

Cry but also laugh….”

Jan Evans

DPA Volunteer

A call for equal recognition and support for all athletes

Note: This is DPA’s original letter to the Straits Times. The published piece was edited to focus only on the parity of cash rewards for medal winners. 

The Disabled People’s Association (DPA) congratulates Ms Theresa Goh and Ms Yip Pin Xiu for winning both a bronze and 2 gold medals in their respective competitions at the Rio Paralympics 2016. DPA would also like to congratulate their fellow Paralympians who represented Singapore at these competitive games.

The Paralympics is undoubtedly the most successful disability sports event and many champions become positive role models for people across the world.  Lego recently launched two mini-figures in the likeness of Ms Goh and Ms Yip to celebrate the duo’s achievements at Rio.

With the recent ‘See the True Me’ campaign advocating for greater inclusion of persons with disabilities, DPA hopes that our society will walk the talk and accord athletes with disabilities with as much support, reward and recognition as their counterparts without disabilities.

After the London Paralympics 2012, DPA wrote a letter on 15 September 2012 “Clear the air on parity for Paralympians”  calling for clarity on the disparity in monetary rewards to Paralympians and Olympians.   We also held the view then (and that still holds true today) that perhaps the key issue was not just about the rewards and that the main focus should be how Singapore can nurture future word class athletes.  We had hoped that the performances of our Paralympians can inspire Singapore to support and produce word class athletes, with or without disabilities, of whom we all can be proud.  The operative word here being, “support”.

To be sure, all athletes with and without disabilities deserve more training support. Mr Joseph Schooling rightly deserves all the praise and reward he received after winning a gold medal at the Olympics in Rio. Yet, Ms Goh and Ms Yip are no less deserving and there should be parity in how they are rewarded.

In response to DPA’s letter, the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) replied to DPA and explained the variance in cash rewards is that the prize money comes from different donor-funded schemes and better donor awareness of the Olympics over the Paralympics. The reward for Paralympians is derived from the Athlete’s Achievement Award (AAA), while the reward for Olympians comes from the Multi-Million Dollar Awards Programme (MAP).  Although the separate set-ups may explain the variance in the reward amounts it does not explain why things have to remain that way. Indeed, four years on, the reward scheme structure has not changed much. If the prize money for Olympians and Paralympians cannot be matched, then going forward the two funding schemes should be consolidated into one so that private donors fund the reward of all elite athletes.

Such a move would show that as a society, we are doing more than just talking about being an inclusive society and that we are taking real steps towards it.

Nicholas Aw


Disabled People’s Association

Everyone can get involved in disability inclusion

Straits Times Forum, 9 June 2016 (print edition)

The Disabled People’s Association (DPA) agrees with the points raised by Ms Peggy Chia Kwee Choo (“Be creative in raising awareness of disabilities“; Tuesday).

People with disabilities are people first, and have different abilities, talents, interests and personalities, just like everyone else.

This pertinent message is highlighted in the latest campaign, See The True Me, which is organised by the National Council of Social Service and the Tote Board-Enabling Lives Initiative, in partnership with the DPA.

We encourage members of the public to visit this website.

Public education campaigns play a vital role in raising large-scale awareness and in changing mindsets. But they alone cannot be expected to weave diversity and inclusion into the fabric of our society.

Building a culture of acceptance and understanding requires every individual at all levels – from public-sector organisations and businesses to schools – to get involved, and they can do so in many ways.

For example, public-sector organisations and businesses could encourage their staff to attend disability awareness and sensitivity training, to build their confidence in engaging with people with disabilities.

Mainstream schools could invite disability organisations to conduct awareness talks for teachers, parents and students.

And members of the public could participate in disability events such as the Purple Parade, or even start a conversation about disability with friends or families.

With the support of every individual, the DPA is confident that we can build a more inclusive Singapore.

Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills (Dr)
Executive Director
Disabled People’s Association

Children can set the example for parents on inclusion

Today, 3 June 2016 (print edition)

Did we expect parents to let their precious children mix with a child who is different from them, special needs or otherwise? (“S’poreans support inclusive education but do not walk the talk: Study”; May 31)

Are we quick to criticise those who do not walk the talk? After all, keeping up and doing better is ingrained in our society. Would we have time for others?

If we cannot change parents’ mindsets, perhaps we can do better with the children who, in turn, can educate their mothers and fathers that mixing with people who are different is okay.

It is never too late, but to make Singapore a better place, we must start now.

Whitney Houston’s powerful song Greatest Love Of All sums up my thoughts on this matter: Children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way.

Nicholas Aw
Disabled People’s Association


Inclusion: what does it really mean for people with disabilities?

By Jorain Ng

In Singapore, the term “inclusion” gets thrown around a lot when we talk about how people with disabilities should be treated in our society. You can see this term almost everywhere, from ministerial speeches, campaign slogans to companies motto. But what does “inclusion” really mean?

Most would paint a general idea of inclusion and say something along the lines of “including people with disabilities equally and fairly in society”. But this begs the question. We all have divergent, even contesting, views on what constitute “fairness” and “equality”.

Not too long ago, I attended a focus group session for persons with disabilities to share their views and experiences on social inclusion. Our facilitator asked us to define what inclusion means in employment. We gave generic replies such as fair hiring practices and equal opportunities for career progression. “Equal pay, equal work,” I answered at one point. I wanted to drive home the point that a person with disability should be treated equitably as their colleagues in compensation, professional development and accountability.

The facilitator then brought up a hypothetical case study to provoke further discussion on this notion of “equal pay, equal work.” He asked: If an employee with a disability who comes from a lower income household is unable to meet his KPI (Key Performance Indicator), how should his employer remunerate him? Should the employer offer him a salary based on his productivity level, or the same salary given to his colleagues who are doing the same line of work but with higher productivity levels?

Much to my surprise, the other respondents supported the latter practice. They even quipped that the company could hire the man to be a “poster boy” for their Corporate Social Responsibility events.

I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at their response. Didn’t they know that such employment practices only reinforced the negative stereotypes of persons with disabilities as objects of charity? How could it be an acceptable practice of inclusion?

But I wasn’t there to judge. We live a free country; everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. And mine was starkly different. “I still stand by what I said previously. Equal pay, equal work. The man should be paid according to his productivity level.”

To gain respect from a society that prides itself on being a meritocracy, it is important that persons with disabilities are treated as equals, not beneficiaries of a company’s generosity. Anything more would be an insult to his dignity, an act of tokenism which we all know to be a sad excuse for inaction, and a counterproductive measure that reinforces the charity model of disability. If a man’s salary is insufficient in supporting his livelihood, he should seek financial help from the Ministry of Social and Family Development. It is the Government’s responsibility to look after the welfare of their citizens, after all.

I’m not sure how others took to my reply, but I know it was definitely not met with overwhelming support. This is understandable. Our background and circumstances, combined with our physiological makeups, influence our perception and thought processes. What may seem like an acceptable practice to me may be unacceptable to others.

The question then is how can policymakers translate these multiple and competing views into a coherent set of inclusion policies, particularly one that seeks to protect, promote and support the rights of all persons with disabilities?

For a start, the disability community need to come together to reach a common understanding on what counts as “inclusion” in Singapore. For example, in the provision of education for students with disabilities, should special schools continue to exist?  If an employee is unable to fulfill his job responsibilities due to limitations arising from his disability, should the company pay him the same salary as offered to his co-workers? These are just some of the tough and debatable questions that need to be addressed. I’m not going to sugar-coat. It’s going to be a complicated, hair-pulling exercise, but it is something I think we all desperately need.


Future of Us

By Jan Evans

“Imagine what Singapore could be in the future”

So reads the front page headline of “The Future Express”, a newspaper distributed at The Future of Us exhibition, the capstone event to Singapore’s SG50 year of celebration.

I attended the Opening Day on 1 December and enjoyed the various multimedia presentations which suggest ways in which Singaporeans might live, work, play, care and learn in the future.

The exhibition was wheelchair accessible but I felt that an opportunity was missed to make it more accessible to persons with disabilities other than those relating to mobility:  Closed captioning in English, Sign Language interpreters in video stream, braille signage and more tactile exhibits would have helped include people with different disabilities.

It was the Theatre of Generations which made the most impact with me. In a film projected above us we met four people from the future (2030) – Yi Xin, Joseph, Faizal and Ravina – and learned of their dreams and aspirations as they drew inspiration from their grandparents in 1965.   It wasn’t the futuristic images that stayed in my mind nor the 360 degree projection screen overhead:  It was the simple image (often front and centre screen in group shots) of Yi Xin, a designer, who also happened to be a wheelchair user.  Noone drew attention to this fact, there was no fanfare, nor was there wide acclaim of the fact that she was a professional “in spite of her disability”. It was a simple visual statement.  And more effective for its simplicity.


Photo shows Yi Xin, a designer, who also happened to be a wheelchair user.

I have attended many Disability Awareness events and conferences over the past few months. They are usually attended by people who are already interested and involved in raising Disability Awareness in Singapore : “Preaching to the converted” was a phrase used in one conference.   Many people who want to “be the change” in Singapore comment that they rarely saw people with disabilities when they were growing up or going to school.

On the way to Gardens by the Bay (the location of the exhibition), my friend and I passed through the Shoppes at Marina Bay and, as we turned the corner, found ourselves in the middle of what appeared to be a Wheelchair Rally:  We had walked into the ASEAN Para Games Welcome Event at Marina Bay Sands.  My friend commented, “I have never seen so many wheelchairs!”  “Isn’t it great!” I said.


Photo shows Barney, a purple dinosaur, at the Purple Parade 2015.

After the Purple Parade (at the end of October) there was a photo posted on FaceBook featuring one character in the parade. The caption read, “Look at our cute purple dino at ‪#‎PurpleParadeSG” .  In fact, the subject of the photo was the title character from the well loved children’s American TV series, “Barney & Friends”, which aired from 1992–2009. The series featured Barney, a purple dinosaur, who comes to life in the imagination of children and conveys educational messages through songs and dance routines. Barney’s friends included a small group of children from different ethnic backgrounds.  One of Barney’s friends was a boy called David, a wheelchair user (played by Robert Hurtekant, a wheelchair user in real life). I don’t recall any special mention of his wheelchair, he was simply – well – included.

The Future of Us exhibition calls on Singaporeans “to share their hopes and dreams for themselves, their family and the nation.”

I dream that people with disabilities are so part of the everyday visual landscape, so able to move freely from place to place, so populating and productive in the workplace that the situation is totally unnoticeable and unworthy of comment.

“Imagine what Singapore could be in the future”?

I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that these dreams will become a reality in the very near future …

And that they do not only “come to life” – like Barney the Purple Dinosaur – merely in the imagination of the naive.

The Future of Us Exhibition is on until 8 March 2016.  Tickets are available for various time slots and are free – see

Jan Evans is a volunteer at the Disabled People’s Association. She joined the team last year 2014 and has contributed to DPA’s research and publications. 

Lesser-known facts about community-based rehabilitation

By Jorain Ng

Let’s have a show of hands – who has heard of the term ‘community based rehabilitation’?

If this is your first time coming across the term, do not fret – I was in your shoes. Before I participated in the regional workshop on community based rehabilitation, I have never heard of this term. And this is not surprising because CBR is not included in Singapore’s policies and programmes for persons with disabilities, and CBR was never discussed or even mentioned in the conferences, workshops and talks on disability I have attended.

When the time came for me to interact with other delegates and distinguished speakers who have had immense experience in CBR, I felt like a fish out of water. Not only did I learn that CBR is a well-known concept and is included in the national policies of some ASEAN member countries, I also learned that CBR is recognised to be the most appropriate strategy for inclusion for ASEAN countries. I had to do a double take. Hold on – isn’t CBR just about rehabilitation? Why is it so important to these ASEAN countries?

Here are some lesser-known facts about CBR:

CBR is not just about rehabilitation.


Persons with disabilities making handbags and pouches at a sheltered workshop in Bangkok. (Photo taken by DPA with permission from the organisers).

Don’t be fooled by the name. CBR is not just about rehabilitation. In fact rehabilitation is just a small part of what CBR does now. According to the World Health Organisation’s guidelines, CBR consists of five main components, namely, health (therapy, rehabilitation etc), education (early childhood intervention services, higher education etc), livelihood (waged employment etc), social (marriage and family, culture and arts etc) and empowerment. At its most basic, CBR is about meeting the basic needs of persons with disabilities.

CBR is all about empowerment.

The empowerment of persons with disabilities, their families and communities is at the center of CBR. A good CBR programme is not implemented from the top-down; it actively involves persons with disabilities and their family members in the decision-making process, and is tailored to the needs of persons with disabilities.

CBR as a concept varies across and within countries.

In some ASEAN countries, the CBR programmes only focus on health such as rehabilitation, disability prevention and assistive devices. While others focus on all aspects of life such as health, education, social and livelihood. There are also varying perspectives on the role of the Government in CBR. Some countries have argued for greater Government intervention.

Malaysia is the leading country in CBR.

Among the ASEAN member states, Malaysia is the leading country in CBR. Not only do they have a concrete national CBR policy, Malaysia has a CBR network that provides training for CBR personnel. CBR staff is also a recognised profession in the country.

CBR is more appropriate for developing countries.

CBR is designed mostly for developing countries where there are limited access to disability-related services and programmes, especially in rural areas. Governments in these countries lack the necessary resources to provide services and programmes for all persons with disabilities in both urban and rural areas. CBR help fill this service gap by mobilising resources in local communities in terms of manpower, material and money.

Singapore’s small geographical size and relatively high level of development mean that most disability services and programmes are located close to people’s homes and are available at local community centres. Moreover, the Government provides extensive funding for voluntary welfare organisations providing disability services. Hence CBR is not the most relevant initiative for Singapore.

Even so, there are lessons Singapore can learn from the CBR initiative. In these developing countries, CBR serves as a guiding principle or framework for the formulation and implementation of disability policies and programmes. Singapore can take a leaf out of this CBR initiative, and be clear about the philosophies or guiding principles underpinning the many disability policies and programmes. And by that I mean having a clear understanding of the concept of disability and the social model of disability. (Hang on – what is the social model of disability again? Please read DPA’s booklet on inclusion.)

CBR is a strategy for inclusion.

CBR guidelines adopted the same principles listed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The goal of CBR is to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal rights and access to the services they require to attain and maintain maximum independence, and achieve full and equal participation in all aspects of life. As such, most ASEAN countries view it as the way forward and the most appropriate strategy for inclusion.

Singapore’s alternative to CBR and method of realising the objectives of the CRPD is an action plan called the Enabling Masterplan. It is essentially a list of concrete and comprehensive recommendations to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in Singapore. The Singapore government also translated CRPD obligations into locally-appropriate policies and programmes. (For more information, please read DPA’s booklet, Singapore and the UN CRPD).

Introduction to the Deafblind

by Jan Evans

“The best thing is that I’m alive”

So said Satoshi Fukushima in a fascinating and moving 28 minute video shown at SADeaf’s excellent “Introduction to the Deafblind” Workshop on Saturday, 13 June 2015.  Satoshi lost his hearing at 9 yrs old and his sight at 18 yrs.  At that latter point in his life, he admits he “hit rock bottom” then came to realise that there was purpose in his hardship and suffering and “climbed out of the pit”. Now a leading advocate of the Deafblind in Japan, Dr Fukushima is currently Professor at Tokyo University Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology. His research specialities include social and psychological aspects of deafblind people.

It almost goes without saying that I was introduced to a new world last Saturday. The workshop was run by Lisa Loh, an energetic 20-something who is deaf and has Retinitis Pigmentosa: She is able to see less and less in her peripheral vision and knows that in time the rest of her sight will follow. Lisa explained the different causes and levels of deafblindness and the different types of communication. The Deafblind communicate through touch (Braille, Tactile Signing or Finger Braille).  I was awestruck to hear that Satoshi’s mother, Reiko, developed Finger Braille “because there was no Braille typewriter in the kitchen” and amused to hear her casual aside to him “You could have been more enthusiastic”!

The workshop included a simulation of deafblindness.  We paired off, one person being the deafblind person (donning a triple layered eyemask and very thick headphones/ear defenders), the other was the Interpreter Guide (IG – who communicates with and leads the deafblind person). Then we swapped roles. One guided route took us up and down stairways and along winding corridors; the other had us sampling (by touch) various objects.  Your comfort level very much depended on the trust you had in your IG. The experience was telling and I am sure you can imagine the feelings of isolation and helplessness. The role of IG proved more demanding especially when I was teamed up with someone who was deaf/hard of hearing where any meaningful communication was by fingerspelling Roman letters on the palm (note to self – it doesn’t work sideways) or tactile sign writing (no – I don’t know how to do that properly either). I thank my deaf/HOH partners for their grace and forbearance – and good humour.

Satoshi_Fukushima2I was interested to learn that Dr Fukushima has spearheaded quite an influential deafblind movement in Japan. Lisa has met a number of deafblind IGs there: 50% of them had experience as Sign Language Interpreters, just less than 50% as Blind Guides and the remaining small percentage had no experience at all. Most IGs in Japan are NOT related to the deaf blind person which facilitates more independence.

So what of Singapore?

We have all heard stories about well-intentioned passers-by “helping” those who are blind/visually impaired across the street …when they didn’t want to go!  However this situation would not occur with a deafblind person.  It is inevitable that there will be an accompanying IG.

There are about 13 Deafblind people known to Lisa: 7 are registered with SADeaf/SAVH.  There are probably more.  In Japan, an estimated 22,000 people are both deaf and blind.

IGs for the Deafblind in Singapore tend to be family members but they need a rest occasionally.  There may be formal provision for Befrienders to take deafblind people to a hospital appointment or church service but the Deafblind still have difficulty accessing leisure activities.

To learn more about SADeaf’s deafblind workshops please go to SADeaf’s website at – I understand Lisa will be conducting a 3rd “Introduction to  the Deafblind” workshop at the end of this year which, no doubt, SADeaf will advertise nearer the time. I commend it.

Jan Evans is a volunteer at Disabled People’s Association, Singapore.