employment

A compilation of advice articles on how one can make the workplace a more harmonious and accessible environment for persons with disabilities.

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.

 

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Three Easy Steps to Apply for Open Door Programme

By Jorain Ng

Applying for the Open Door Programme (ODP) is easy. I have successfully applied for the scheme and managed to get a lighter laptop for work thanks to the 90% subsidy .

Unfortunately, not many companies are tapping onto this scheme because 1) they are not aware of the scheme; 2) they do not know how to go about applying for the ODP; or 3) they think it’s too troublesome.

By penning down my experience, I hope to encourage companies who have hired or are interested in hiring persons with disabilities to familarise themselves with the ODP and apply for the scheme.

Step 1: Speak to your employee 

Persons with disabilities may require some form of adaptation or accommodation to assist them to overcome obstacles in their work environment, such as wheelchair access in a narrow office space. Hence you should speak to your employee about the accommodation(s) they might require to perform their job efficiently.

Do bear in mind that people with the same disability may have different needs and thus require different types of accommodation. So it is always good to ask, and never assume that what is appropriate for one will be appropriate for another.

If your employee is not sure about the type of workplace accommodation he/she requires, seek advice from SG Enable or their job placement/support officer and/or social worker (if they have one). SG Enable may perform a site visit to evaluate their job and work environment so that they can make the best recommendation.

Step 2: Contact SG Enable for information on application process

Contact SG Enable and provide them the following details:

  • employee’s disability;
  • employee’s job duties;
  • type of accommodation required.

An employment specialist will then advise you and provide the relevant information on how you can tap the funding and support under the ODP. SG Enable may also request to perform a site visit and require you to fill out more paperwork.

I only requested for a subsidy to purchase a lighter laptop so the application process was really straightforward. All my supervisor needed to do was submit a formal email request that included a description of my disability, purchase rationale and justification, and the cost of the equipment.

Step 3: Wait for SG Enable’s approval

Depending on the nature of your request, the reply from SG Enable may take a few days. So be patient.

In my case, SG Enable replied with an attached application form in their email. They requested that my employer submit the application form along with the original copy of the receipt so that they can reimburse DPA accordingly. The disbursement period took around 6 months.

Based on my personal experience, those three steps are all it takes to apply for the ODP.

The process may be longer and more complicated for other funding programs such as the apprenticeship program and capability development funding. But do remember that SG Enable is always willing and able to provide companies funding support to make their workplace more inclusive for persons with disabilities.

Have you applied for the ODP? Was it successful? Did you find the process easy or cumbersome? Let us know in the comments below!

Going Whoa @ WOHA Architects

By Alvan Yap and Marissa Medjeral-Mills

Not-so-usual lift buttons.

Not-so-usual lift buttons.

This is a mechanical sleight of hand, or is it a visual illusion? There is a flight of stairs, and then there isn’t – the steps vanish, flattening to a smooth, level surface. You see it happen, you understand, in an intuitive way, how it works, and still it seems magical.

DPA got to know about a certain firm’s custom-designed office for one of its staff who has a disability. We reached out to them for a chat and to take a look. This was how, one sunny morning, WOHA Architects came to play gracious hosts to us at its premises.

We were showed around the office, which is located in a converted shophouse, by WOHA staff Richard Kuppusamy and Phoebe Tan.

Richard, a wheelchair user, is an architect, while Phoebe is the Information Resource Manager.

It was especially interesting, not to mention illuminating, to see how WOHA had tackled the shophouse’s unique spatial and design challenges to make it wheelchair accessible.


All About Richard

But before venturing there, let’s get to know Richard a bit more.

IMGP1187

Richard had worked in the United Kingdom for 16 years before moving back to Singapore to be closer to his family. When he started job hunting upon his return, he found obstacles – literal, concrete ones – in his way. Not only did Richard have to seek an architect firm he would like to work for, it also has to have a door he could actually enter in his wheelchair.

WOHA Architects and Richard, fortunately, found each other and they turned out to be the perfect match. The WOHA management was willing to modify the office to make it accessible. WOHA, aptly enough, served as designer and consultant for the renovations, which were done in collaboration with Richard. The end result is an excellent example of “reasonable accommodation” in the workplace.


Untangling the acronym: About the CRPD

As defined by the The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ‘reasonable accommodation’ refers to “the necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”


The Importance of Being Reasonable..

Let’s see how the concept of “reasonable accommodation” works in practice for Richard. To him, it does not mean that every part of the office has to be made accessible to him. He feels it is enough that most of the office is accessible, especially the areas he needs to access frequently in the course of his work. He also says it “means that there are no barriers which prevent disabled persons from carrying out their work efficiently and also affording them the ability to excel”.

Reasonable accommodation, in other words, is not as overwhelming or as difficult to carry out as we might think. It is about acceptable compromises and balancing the needs of all parties, not about insisting that the needs of the person with disabilities – or any one group – take priority over others’.

An example: At one level of the office, there is a ramp which is a little steeper than technically ideal, but Richard does not mind as he can still use it comfortably. Making it less steep would get in the way of another colleague’s desk and also make it more likely for others to trip over it accidentally.

Too steep? Just nice? Takes up too much space? Tripping hazard? Juggling everyone's needs is an art.

Too steep? Just nice? Takes up too much space? Tripping hazard?
Juggling everyone’s needs is an art.


… And of Clarification

Richard says that if his fellow colleagues have questions about disability or about how to integrate the employee with disability, these questions should be addressed to the HR department. The HR side should have a policy to answer such queries and address any issues arising from having a staff with disability. It would also be good to have awareness/sensitivity training for the employees before hiring the person with disability.

Being Inclusive – What Does it Mean?
Richard feels employers in Singapore need to make more effort in being inclusive. Small measures can go a long way towards inclusiveness not only in their offices, but in their employment practices.

For example, if the office is not accessible for a candidate who uses a wheelchair, they should consider holding the interview at another venue which is accessible. If they then decide to hire that person, they can then go about making the office accessible.

He notes that a culture of inclusiveness in the workplace helps companies attract and keep employees with disabilities “who are educated and skilled, otherwise they will go overseas if there are no employment opportunities in Singapore.”


The Grand Tour

Now, let’s take a tour of the renovated, accessible shophouse!

Seamlessly does it!

Seamlessly does it!

Main entrance: The main door is big enough for a wheelchair user to go through easily. There is also a slight slope from the pavement outside leading to the door. WOHA had levelled off the walkway in the front of its shophouse premises to ensure easy passage through to the office entrance or past it to the adjacent buildings.

Richard notes that in many cases, the walkways outside shophouse buildings are not level, and also tended to be blocked by various structures such as signposts, bollards and fire hydrants. This makes it difficult or impossible for a wheelchair user to navigate freely.

Within and around WOHA’s shophouse office, the floors and rooms are made as accessible as possible.

Level floor.

Level floor.

Gentle slope.

Gentle slope.

Grilled surface covered up for wheelchair use.

Grilled surface covered up for wheelchair use.


Now You See It…
Two sets of flex up stairs are installed at WOHA’s office – one at the back entrance and another leading to the meeting room.

One floor, two levels, and two ways to access it.

One floor, two levels, and two ways to access it.

Back entrance: As the street level is lower than the entrance to the shophouse, stair access to the building is needed, and so is a lift for the wheelchair. The solution is to have something does both – flex up stairs.

Meeting room: As the shophouse is a listed (ie. protected) property according to the National Heritage Board (NHB), certain structural and aesthetic designs of the original building must be retained. NHB guidelines include the provision that the floors have to be maintained at their original levels up to 8 metres inside the building. This is why there are multiple levels on one floor, which means a set of flex up stairs had to be customised for access to the meeting room.

Let’s have a look at the flex up stairs in action.

The flex up stairs is activated by a button, which converts the stairs to a lift, and which reverts to a set of stairs after a minute. As a safety feature, it is fitted with sensors which detect whether anyone is on the platform. When activated, an alarm sounds to alert people to keep clear. This Building and Construction Authority-approved device, which costs about $40,000 to $50,000, was eligible for an ATF subsidy. (See box story below for more about the ATF.)

Accessibility solutions, Richard adds, should be integrated in a seamless way and not look like an afterthought. This is especially pertinent for a design firm. The flex up stairs and design of WOHA’s office is a good example of how this can be done – in fact, the meeting room is available for architecture groups to study as a model of accessible design.

Tapping On Technology
The Assistive Technology Fund (ATF), administrated by SG Enable, “provides individuals with a subsidy of up to 90% of the cost of assistive technology devices or $20,000 over the individual’s lifetime, whichever is lower. The Fund can be used to acquire, replace, upgrade or repair assistive technology devices for educational use or use in the workplace.”

IMGP1212

Bathroom: The bathroom/toilet door is of a foldable design which takes up less space than a swing door. The door can be opened both inwards and outwards, yet it works like a regular swing door. This type of door is usually used in corridors and is especially suited to the limited space of a converted shophouse.

Bathroom

Bathroom

Toilet: Richard feels that the design of toilets should conform to British accessibility standards which promote the independent – rather than assisted – use of the facility. This is what WOHA has done for its accessible toilet in its premises.

The current BCA code specifies a sink to be located on the wall next to the toilet, but this poses a problem – it blocks side transfers. (Side transfers from a wheelchair to the toilet is best for most levels of mobility.) The layout in the BCA code, Richard feels, is more conducive to assistants of person with disabilities, rather than for more independent users who do not need help.

In WOHA’s accessible facility, the wheelchair can be parked beside the toilet bowl itself (the spot where the sink is supposed to be in the BCA code), and the sink is located away and opposite the toilet bowl instead.

IMGP1206

Sink: The sink should be situated so that the wheelchair user can wash his hands before touching the wheelchair again, which makes for better hygiene.

The sink has an infrared sensor tap and soap dispenser. The sensor is in the tap end which is more reliably activated  compared to other taps with sensors embedded lower down. Other universal design features include: the dip in the front of the sink for the person in a wheelchair to reach the tap more easily; and the ample knee space clearance under the sink.


In Case Of Emergency

Specialised device.. find out what it is!

Specialised device.. find out what it is!

An evacuation plan that specifies procedures to bring wheelchair users or those with limited mobility out of the building safely is necessary in cases of fire or other emergencies. WOHA had gotten in touch with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) about the evacuation guidelines and procedures for shophouses.

Although the lift is cleared to be operated in case of a fire, firemen would need exclusive use of it. So another method to get Richard down the stairs and out of the building during emergencies is needed – via a evacuation chair.

Richard had undertaken some research on the efficacy and suitability of evacuation chairs in the market, as part of a previous research project as an access consultant.

He found that widely used evacuation chairs do not adhere to any safety standards, and may be uncomfortable or even hazardous to the user. That is, although these non-certified chairs may help one survive a fire, the user may also end up with other injuries and further disabilities.

Another problem is that most such chairs are not designed to be used on a level floor. But as wheelchair users would have to abandon their wheelchairs in the building they are evacuating and use evacuation chairs instead, such devices need to be able to serve as a temporary wheelchair once they have exited the building and before a replacement can be found.

Although evacuation chairs can be operated easily by people of average strength and build, the operators need to be trained to use them because of the limited space it would be used in and safety concerns.


Using An Evacuation Chair

Evacuating a wheelchair user

Evacuating a wheelchair user

To use an evacuation chair, the person is strapped into it. On a level floor, the user will be in a sitting position. When descending the stairs, the user is then in an upright position, but not leaning forward as it would be disconcerting to him.

The chair, which WOHA specially imported from Canada, is designed to descend the steps using gravity and the body weight of the person in the chair. It will also automatically stop mid-step if the person pushing it lets go of the lever – a useful safety feature in high-rise buildings where the staircases may be jammed during an evacuation and the human traffic slow moving.

Another interesting fact: Evacuation chairs for basement offices are available too. These are motorised, enabling the ascent of the chairs.

DPA extends our warmest thanks to Richard and Phoebe for their time, company and sharing!

(Photos and video clip by Alvan Yap.)

Misconceptions about disabled employees

Straits Times Forum, 27 November 2013 (print edition)

THE Disabled People’s Association agrees with the key points in Monday’s article (“Enabling the disabled employee at work”).

The apprehension of employers and non-disabled employees to engage those with disabilities in the workplace stems from three main factors: lack of opportunities to interact with the disabled person; the stereotype that the person is less productive or competent than a non-disabled one; and that any workplace adjustment to accommodate the person’s needs could potentially be expensive or substantial.

All these perceived challenges are either misconceptions or more easily resolved than anticipated.

Feedback given by disabled-friendly employers has indicated that, by and large, non-disabled employees and bosses are accommodating towards their disabled colleagues and are willing to assist whenever needed. The amount of adjustment or additional effort on the part of employers also tends to be minimal.

Businesses that need help in retrofitting workplaces, obtaining special equipment or purchasing technological devices for disabled employees can tap the Open Door Fund.

We conduct an inclusion fundamentals workshop for employers. This aims to promote understanding of the diverse needs of people with disabilities and how to accommodate them in practical, sustainable and reasonable ways.

In this particular aspect, the public sector should lead by example.

Public sector jobs require candidates to declare their disabilities. It would be helpful to clarify the rationale for this and how it affects the disabled candidate’s employment chances at the application stage.

Miss Chan Lishan (“A gradual ascent from madness”; Sunday) was reported as having faced much more difficulty finding work in the public sector than in the private sector, which tends not to ask for such personal details.

This disparity is especially glaring as her experience clearly shows that her mental illness did not have any bearing on her work performance, as would be the case for most people with such conditions.

In the long run, organisations that flourish are those with good employment, health and safety policies for their employees, disabled or otherwise. Foremost among them would be a fair recruitment process based on merit and ability, and which disregards irrelevant factors such as race, age, gender, religion and disability.

Alvan Yap Boon Sheng
Advocacy Executive
Disabled People’s Association

Read the reply from the Prime Minister’s Office.

ST Supper Club with Nicholas Aw

From the Straits Times, 16 November 2013
By Goh Chin Lian

Part 1: ‘Let the disabled pay half price’
Commuters with disabilities are to get fare concessions on the bus and MRT, the Government said this week. But Mr Nicholas Aw, president of the Disabled People’s Association, wants them to pay half price. In Part 1 of this interview with Singapolitics, Mr Aw, whose advocacy group celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities in Singapore on Saturday, calls for taxi vouchers and a national registry to keep track of persons with disabilities.

Q: What’s your take on the concessions?
It’s very welcomed. We’ve been asking for this for a very long time. But we are curious as to who qualifies.

The definition of disability is very wide. Anyone can have a disability at any time. Does it apply to people with a temporary disability or who’s injured? Or only people registered with the Government or voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs)? Are those with mental issues considered to have a disability?

I’ve Tourette’s Syndrome. The group that I used to be with, the Tourette care group, says it’s a condition. But the Very Special Arts group in Singapore defines it as a disability. Whichever the case, the concession should include all persons with disabilities.

Is there a means test? Is it for the rich as well? It should be applied across the board, otherwise you have to go through a lot of paperwork which may be a challenge for persons with disabilities.

There are those who are well off, but the vast majority are disadvantaged because they lack access to education, information, accommodation and employment. For example, people with Down’s Syndrome can’t do some of the jobs abled people can do because of their condition.

There must be some safeguards so that the concession won’t be open to abuse. Carpark labels for persons with disabilities are often abused. There’s a blue label for persons with disabilities who drive, and an orange label for caregivers. There’s a time limit for caregivers, but people tend to abuse it.

How do you prevent this? Apart from abuse by abled people, there’s abuse also by the persons with disabilities or their caregivers. Let’s say you’ve a pass for the concessions. What if you lend it to someone else?

Even if these concessions are given, can a person with disability get on board the bus or train to enjoy the benefits? Many are wheelchair users. The route from their home to the MRT or bus stop can be a challenge because when they come to a kerb, there is no ramp.

Almost every MRT has one lift. The person on the wheelchair has to fight with abled people, the elderly and people with strollers for that one lift. A member told me he waited for an hour for the lift. Every time the door opens, they just rush in. Clearly they could have used the escalator.

I was with my son in a stroller at Gardens by the Bay. The lift is for people with strollers, the elderly or PWD. Two young couples just rushed in.

Staff manning the doors don’t know what to do if there’s a person with disability. When it’s crowded, do they tell the crowds to stand aside to let him through?

Are there standard operating procedures? Our members complain they can’t get on the train at peak hours due to people rushing in.


Q: How big a deal is public transport cost for this group?
In Scotland, public transport is free for those above 60 and people with disabilities. Malaysia gives up to 50 per cent off on trains. Australia gives taxi vouchers. The minister says the concession will offset any fare increase. How much less do they pay? It has to be at least 50 per cent – enough to draw the person with disability out of the house.

Many find it a hassle to take buses. They complain that the bus captains drive by and don’t stop, as they’d have to get down to engage the ramp. It might be a challenge for them to travel from their home to the bus stop, so they call for a cab. The cab fares may be half or three quarters of their monthly pay. So, make it easier for them to take taxis by giving them vouchers.

There are persons with disabilities, with mobility issues, who can drive. But the car has to be modified to suit their disability. The Government can subsidise their car by waiving the COE.


Q: Why do you think that tax payers should foot the bill?

You want to be an inclusive society. One day you’ll be old as well and you may have a disability. Someone will pay for your concessions. It’s karma: You give and you get back in return.

A lot of people with disabilities would rather stay at home because they can’t get out or if they get out, it’s very troublesome and they have to pay for bus, MRT or taxi. When they stay at home, you don’t see them. You don’t see that many people in a wheelchair on the MRT. But if you go for an event where it involves a VWO or a charity, there are a lot of wheelchair users.

I went for an event at a temple recently. The people in wheelchairs came by buses. I was astounded by the number of people in wheelchairs there.


Q: Why do you think the Government is now for concessions for people with disabilities, when it did not previously?
Apart from ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Government probably recognises that it has to include everyone in their radar and ensure no one is marginalised because of its aim for an inclusive society.

They recognise we are an ageing population with many persons with disabilities becoming more visible in the population. For various reasons, we see a gradual shift towards more welfare-oriented policies.


Q: Why is a national registry of persons with disabilities needed?
A lot of people with disabilities are single or elderly with no one to care for.

You don’t want anyone to fall through the gaps. It may not capture everyone, but at least it’s a start to account for people with disabilities, and it’s a growing number because we are ageing. A lot of them suffer from age-related issues. They start using wheelchairs. They may not be disabled, but they stop walking.

Not all persons with disabilities will want to be registered with VWOs. Some may not be aware. The Government was giving out Goods and Services Tax (GST) credits, and they kept asking people to sign up at the ATMs. People didn’t do it because they were not aware of it. They do not have access to TV or newspapers.

Without accurate numbers and statistics, how does the Government plan policies related to disability? Even the Enabling Masterplan admits its figures for the total numbers in the disability community is an estimate, because no complete statistics are available, it’s all over the place.


Q: What do you think of the plan for all buses to be wheelchair-accessible by 2020?
It’s too long. I’m impatient for change. Maybe there are issues to be resolved that we are not aware of, but things should happen sooner than later because some of these people may not see the benefits after it is rolled out. A lot of them are very old as well.


Part 2: ‘We need laws to protect rights of the disabled’
Disabled commuters are to get fare concessions on public transport, the Government said this week. In Part 2 of this interview, Mr Nicholas Aw, president of the Disabled People’s Association, tells Singapolitics about Lamborghini drivers hogging parking spaces reserved for those with disabilities, and changing mindsets through a recent video campaign.


Q: What are the other transport issues?
Enforcement’s needed. There’s indiscriminate abuse of parking spaces set aside for persons with disabilities. People don’t care. The fine is too small. To someone who drives a Lamborghini, at Marina Bay Sands, it’s small change.

I’ve encountered people who just laugh about it. I call security. They’re afraid to enforce because no law requires them to do so. They’re afraid they will lose their customers.

Playground@Big Splash is crowded every Saturday. Three parking spaces are reserved for persons with disabilities. The security guard allowed abled people to park there. He said: “It’s very crowded.”

I said: “What if there’s a person with a disability? How is he supposed to park?” He said to me: “This is private property. If you’re not happy, call the police.” He’s got a point.

Even if I call the police, it’s private property, there’s nothing I can do. You’ve all the rules, but if you don’t have enforcement, they’re toothless.

Toilets reserved for persons with disabilities are often abused. People see a queue for the ladies, which is often very long. They go there and have a quick one. It happened at a concert organised by the Very Special Arts group. The Prime Minister was the guest-of-honour.

During the reception, I saw a person in a wheelchair waiting outside the toilet for persons with disabilities. I asked: “Who are you waiting for?” “It’s locked”. Then a person came out and he’s abled. Good grief. We’re at an event for persons with disabilities and you abuse the toilet meant for them!

We think no one is going to use it, so we can use it. If you use it, you open the door, you see somebody waiting for you in a wheelchair, where are you going to hide your face?

There are rules about guide dogs for the visually impaired going into food establishments. They’re often not allowed. In shopping centres, they’re accompanied by staff or security because they’re worried that the dogs will affect other customers. This is clearly discrimination.

We need to put bite into all these rules. I’ve recently written to the Prime Minister to consider legislation to protect the rights of persons with disabilities.

At the very least, it will protect them from abuse and enforce the measures that protect them. A person with a guide dog should not be subject to discrimination. Abled people who park at spaces reserved set aside for persons with disabilities in private carparks will be subject to the law.


Q: Is legislation the way to change mindsets and attitudes?
At the rate we’re going, yes, because people are apathetic. I believe in the goodness of people, but I don’t know how it applies. It will be so nice to see people offer their seats on the MRT without saying: “This is a reserved seat, you have to give it up.”

If you’re sitting on the non-reserved seat and you give it up, you make that person’s day and you make your day too because you feel proud of yourself. The rest will think: “Why didn’t I do that?” That’s what we try to promote through our campaign. The tagline is: Remember, their biggest disability is our apathy.

We target the younger ones. This year, my staff proposed to the Ministry of Education (MOE) to include a disability module in its Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) subject, following an announcement that there’ll be an animal welfare module in the revamped CCE.

They initiated discussions with MOE, the National Council of Social Service and other disability VWOs. There’s nothing concrete yet, but the parties are open to the idea. 

It’s all about the mindset that persons with disabilities shouldn’t be pitied; people shouldn’t be apathetic to their needs. Because of our selfishness, our inconsiderate behaviour, they’re affected.


Q: What led to your campaign?
I thought public education was very needed in Singapore. We targeted transportation because the most common feedback was that people don’t give up their seats, lifts are always crowded, parking spaces for persons with disabilities are abused. We wrote to the creative companies. No one wanted to pitch for it.

I was fortunate to know someone from creative agency Goodfellas who did it for us pro bono. We attended the same school, St Joseph’s Institution, and we play soccer together. I emailed him. He said: “Sure, let’s have a look.” We only paid for advertising cost in the cinemas, social media, TV and newspapers. The lovely Eunice Olsen composed an original score for the video. (see video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8i6T1B_dtDQ)


Q: Do you see a big shift in Singapore to being more inclusive?
The concession is a huge move. It’s a sign that the Government is moving forward in improving the lives of people with disabilities and being inclusive.

The Prime Minister shared our campaign video on his Facebook page. He said: “Let’s do our part!” We’re not asking people to do a lot. Just giving way. Be a bit considerate. Then all these things about concessions will fall into place.


Q: Why do we need to change our labels for disabilities?
Terminology is important because some people are very sensitive to labels. The word “wheelchair-bound” (instead of wheelchair user) means people are bound to the wheelchair, but they can get out and they don’t live in a wheelchair. It may seem trivial to some people but to those in wheelchairs, it may mean a lot.

We’ve a dictionary on terminology. “Spastic” is changed to “cerebal palsy” after 50 years. The word “disabled” is wrong. We’re part of the Disabled People’s International, so I can’t just tell them to change the name overnight. If we follow the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it’s “persons with disabilities”. “Handicap” is a misnomer.

When I was young, people laughed at me because of my condition. Name-calling is very painful for the young especially. We’ve got to use proper terminology to protect everyone so they won’t be embarrassed of their condition or disability. The principle is not to label people or use derogatory terms that make people feel small about themselves.


Q: What’s it like to grow up with Tourette’s Syndrome?
I had it when I was 12. I used to be stared at. People would laugh at or imitate me. People thought I was possessed. I came to terms with it. It was a challenge to study. Sometimes it hinders my ability to read. I take longer to do it. I don’t really care what people think about me anymore. Being a lawyer helps. You grow a skin that’s very thick.

But I worry for those who have the condition, are ostracised and can’t get proper jobs. Someone with Tourette’s told me he had a hard time at national service. He was bullied by his peers and laughed at. No one understands his condition, which was very bad. He was using expletives and shouting. I told him to seek medical help because there is medication that helps.

I’m off medication because I’ve been taking it for years. My wife saw through my condition, so I’m very blessed for that.

I’ve a lot of good friends who tell me they don’t see my condition, they just see me as who I am. I’m very thankful for that and I feel very lucky. I hope for the same thing for people with any condition.


Q: What’s the biggest barrier you face for your condition?
I’ve passed that age when I was afraid. When I was younger, I’d think: “What did I do wrong with my life?” “Why was I like that?” “What can I do to help change?”

I can’t see much of a barrier except perhaps when it comes to speech or reading. I have difficulties when I’m stressed. I can’t focus because there’ll be spasms or tics.

Sometimes it can be embarrassing even though I don’t really care. People do stare. I can hear them make comments. Recently I went to a party. I was introduced to a couple and the lady asked me: “Can I ask you a personal question? You have Tourette’s right?” And we carried on. It’s the kind of thing I appreciate rather than to hear whispers: “Why is he so strange? Is there something wrong with him?” For those who want to know, just ask.

When you stare at someone with a disability, talk behind his back or point, he’ll feel embarrassed, awkward and sorry for himself because he’ll think: “Why am I like that?”

The effect of what people do can be very powerful on someone who’s got a condition or a disability. People have to be sensitive to those with special needs.

Hi, I’m Your New Colleague And I Have A Disability

by Alvan Yap

Screenshot of email window

Every person with a disability who is job-hunting – in Singapore’s fiercely competitive labour market, never an easy task even for the non-disabled – has agonised over these questions:

“Do I reveal my disability in my CV?”

“Or only during the interview?”

Or, for those with invisible disabilities: “Should I keep it a secret?” (This isn’t an option for those with visible physical or sensory disabilities.)

Of course, for civil service, government-linked and certain private sector positions, you have no choice – their job application form asks for seemingly every personal detail, including your siblings’ names, ages and occupations, previous criminal convictions, medical issues and, yes, whether you have a disability. (Incidentally, it is illegal to ask such intrusive, non-job-related questions in countries such as Australia, UK and USA.)

But, say, you manage to get the job. Now the question changes a little: “How do I tell my colleagues and/or clients and customers?” and “Do I even need to let them know so explicitly?”

The answer isn’t so straightforward. You need to assess your own, unique situation. In an equal-opportunity company and disability-friendly work culture, why not? Being frank about your disability and letting your co-workers know what it involves in terms of accommodations at the workplace, and what it means in communicating and moving around, and so on would make things easier both for you and your colleagues.

It also helps reduce misunderstandings and misconceptions, especially if the people you work with have no or little exposure to your particular disability. This benefits everyone.

(But I wish to make it clear this is not to say every employee with a disability should be so forthcoming. It depends. The extreme scenario: In some companies with supervisors or staff who are not so open-minded, being so honest may cause you to lose your job. In others, you may face more subtle forms of discrimination such as being awarded lower pay for the same job scope, or getting slower promotions, if at all. That’s the reality, however we decry it as ugly or unfair.)

Let’s look at three examples of introductory emails sent by people with disabilities – autism, visual impairment and hearing impairment – to their fellow workers.

The upsides of emailing one’s colleagues are:

  • They have a written record, which they can easily refer to, of your medical condition/disability, and get to know the adjustments they need to make (you will, of course, still need to interact with them face to face).
  •  It also saves time and energy by sparing you the tedium of having to recount every detail of your disability/accommodations needed to every colleague/client you meet at work.

Note the following are real, unedited emails; only the names have been changed. I’ll like to thank the contributors for granting permission to republish their emails here.

And if you wish to do likewise, do adapt the emails for yourself, and not copy it wholesale. Disabilities occur on a spectrum, and it is highly unlikely the contents of the emails fit your circumstances perfectly. You may also want to structure your email this way: Who you are, position in company, your disability (what it means in medical, social, communication, etc terms), what accommodations you need, tips for working better with you.

Read on!

***

* Employee With Autism *

Dear friends,

It had been a great first month for me in our big family.

I am very happy you invited me to lunch sessions. I like all of you friends! You allow me, a greenhorn, to add on the business know-how and daily updates of the world in general. I am also really excited with the jokes I laugh at – I am sure you share my excitement. I think most of you like the way I smile and cheer up your day.

I do consciously know, though, that I may ‘feel’ weird.

I may behave like a spoilt brat or a loafer. I seem to daze around often. I may speak to myself at the desk. I may be easily distracted by the smell of food or loud sounds. I may repeat a few words unintentionally and unknowingly. I may unknowingly interrupt others while you are engaged in some interesting conversation I would like to join in, but not really adept enough to join in.

Also, in work, despite what I learnt in school, I may find it difficult to follow instructions if it’s not clear-cut – something essential in our line of work. I may need you to repeat instructions over and over again.

I am not really misbehaving. I do not choose to misbehave, even though I try to.

I have autism. Autism is a difference I have.

I may not be able to interact or socialize the way most people do. It is just me.

I try to do my best doing what is best for my job performance. I keep trying.

However, with the fantastic support I received in this company, I am sure I will have a fruitful time with the company.

Have a great day ahead!

Cheers,
Arjun

***

* Employee With Visual Impairment *

Dear all,
I am Aimei. You probably have met me before. I thought I take some time to write to you to explain some things about working with me.

I am Visually Handicapped or Visually Impaired or Visually Challenged or in very simple words, I’m blind. I am unable to read print so giving me a piece of paper with words in an enlarged font won’t help.

I will appreciate that all materials can be in the soft copy format so I can read with the aid of my screen-reader installed on my laptop. Unless the printer/copier talks, I won’t be able to operate them by myself.

Next, to get my attention, either tap me gently or call my name. This will be especially helpful if you need me to speak, just looking at my direction has no effect on me. Likewise, pointing and gesturing won’t work. Be more precise when describing. Try to avoid “It’s here”, “Over there”. Letting me know position of things relative to the surrounding things is very helpful. “The button is next to the emergency button, to its left”. “The cupboards are to the right of the wall” etc.

Most of the time, I won’t know who I am speaking to so you might like to identify yourself as an introduction. A “Hello” or a “Hi” is not really enough for me to recognise you.

Please don’t move the furniture around. I need to use them as a reference point. If there is really a need to move them, please let me know. At the same time, please do not move items which are on my table.

Talking about using objects as reference point, don’t worry if I purposefully walk into objects like wall/plants/pillar and what have you. When my white cane hits them, my mind is processing the information I am given so I can decide how to proceed from there. You can offer your help by giving me verbal instructions or nudging me to the right way if I veer off course. Usually, just let me try on my own.

I am very grateful whenever someone is willing to guide me. Gently make contact with the back of my hand so I know where is the offered arm. If the place we are walking to is quite narrow, bring the arm which is guiding me behind your back. In this case, we are walking in a single file. Do provide me with audio cues like “We are turning left/right”, “We are going up/down some steps”. I can either walk up/down with you or you can let me follow the railings.

Put my hands on the back of the chair so I can find the seat. For chairs without a back, put my hands on the seat itself.

Please inform me if you need to step away for a while. If not, I might end up talking to myself because I cannot see you walking away.

Thank you for your kind understanding.

Aimei

***

* Employee With Hearing Impairment *

Hi everybody,
Thank you for welcoming me to the company. This is a brief note to explain my deafness and how to minimise issues arising from it.

I wear a big ear piece, otherwise known as my cochlear implant.

This implant helps me to hear sounds better.

Unfortunately, the sounds I hear are not exactly the same as the sounds heard by people with normal hearing. Mine is a somewhat degraded version, with quite a lot of fidelity loss, so sounds/speech are not always comprehensible to me. That is, there are certain sounds in the human speech frequency range which I can’t catch, or my brain can’t understand or interpret properly.

(If this seems confusing, imagine someone speaking Latin or Greek to you. No matter how loudly the person speaks, you will not understand what he’s saying. Here, I’m assuming no one here understands these languages…if you do, let me know…. I’ll think of another analogy.)

**

So much for the theories. What does all these mean in practice?

* Sometimes, I can’t catch you the first time, or the second, or even the third. So I have to ask you to repeat what you say.

* I must maintain eye contact with you or, at the very least, be able to see your face in order to understand what you say.

This is also why I can’t understand speech over the phone, because I can’t see the person’s face at the other end of the line. (I can hear your voice fine on the phone, but I just cannot understand it. Maybe one fine day when our company starts using video phones, I may actually do video calls and pray the other person doesn’t aim the screen up his/her nostrils or some other unmentionable place while talking away…)

* Noisy places with lots of background noise — such as in the canteen during peak hour, beside a busy road, etc — kill me. It’s very difficult for me to understand speech in such situations. (My implant amplifies all sounds/noises, not just human voices.)

* I only understand English. All four tones of Mandarin, and all nine tones of Cantonese sound similar to me. Eg., dumplings or sleep (shui jiao) have the same mouth movements and sound the same to me.

**

Tips to improve communication with me:

* Get my attention first before starting a conversation with me. If I don’t respond to my name, feel free to wave or stand in front of me (of course this does not apply to certain situations like…. when I’m using the toilet).

* In a quiet room, on a one-to-one or small group basis, face to face, I do best. If you need to embark on a long, complex discussion with me, this is the ideal environment.

* If I repeatedly can’t catch what you say, rephrasing your sentence may help. Simple gestures and pointing, if possible, also are useful, especially for numbers or directions or sizes, etc.

* To make up for my non-existent phone skills, email or SMS me. Or if you wish to talk, just let me know, and I’ll be happy to go over to your desk.

* If I sound unintelligible, please don’t be shy, and ask me to repeat. I’ll speak slower and concentrate on speaking clearer as well.

Do feel free to ask me if you have any questions.

Ahmad