What It Should Have Been: Edition #6

By Jorain Ng

I can’t believe this but we’re now into Round Six of DPA’s public education initiative on proper terminology to describe persons with disabilities. Let’s hope this segment will end by the tenth edition. (For first-time readers, find out more here.)


Channel News Asia, 10 August 2015
Abuse cases involving disabled go largely unreported: Social workers

The entire article, including the headline, contain words like disabled or disabled people.

The more appropriate term is people with disabilities.

It is only respectful to refer to people with disabilities as individuals first.

SG Enable says: People with disabilities are individuals first. Their disabling condition or conditions are only one part of who they are. So as far as possible, refer to the person first, then the disability.


Channel News Asia, 24 August 2015
Minds students do their bit for society

The visit is part of a Minds push to get its students and beneficiaries – from Minds homes, and employment and training centres – to contribute to society, and also to integrate and socialise with able-bodied volunteers through school or corporate pairings.

The visit is part of a Minds push to get its students and beneficiaries – from Minds homes, and employment and training centres – to contribute to society, and also to integrate and socialise with volunteers without disabilities through school or corporate pairings.

The opposite of “people with disabilities” is not “able-bodied” or “abled”. These terms suggest that people with disabilities are not “able”.


Straits Times, 17 September 2015
Inclusive gym that caters for folk with disabilities

The entire article uses terms such as deaf and blind people, able-bodied friends, and visually handicapped.

The more appropriate terms are people with a visual disability, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, friends without disabilities, and people with a visual disability. 

As above, please use people-first language to refer to people with disabilities respectfully and appropriately, and avoid using terms like “able-bodied” to refer to people who do not have a disability. The term “handicapped” is also an outdated or offensive term because it implies that persons with disabilities have an imposed disadvantage.


Straits Times, 28 September 2015
Rules on parking labels for disabled set to be tightened

The entire article, including the headline, is peppered by words such as the disabled, able-bodied, disabled drivers, disabled passengers.

The more appropriate terms are people with disabilities, people without disabilities, drivers with disabilities and passengers with disabilities.

Again, people with disabilities are individuals first. So please refer to them as such.


Here are more examples of incorrect terminologies found in Singapore’s local newspapers: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3Part 4 and Part 5. But local newspapers are not the only ones I found using inappropriate terminologies. I’ve caught international news channel like BBC News using words like “wheelchair bound” and “disabled person”. Take, for example, the following news articles by BBC News:

BBC News, 19 October 2015
Model role for teenager with spinal disorder

She underwent a six-hour operation to prevent the condition from making her wheelchair-bound.

She underwent a six-hour operation to prevent the condition from making her non-ambulant.

This error has appeared in examples in previous columns so far, and has been explained too.  Avoid terms such as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”. Rather, say that a person “uses a wheelchair” or a “wheelchair user”. But since the article is describing how a model underwent an operation to treat her severe spinal disorder so that she can continue to walk, the term “non-ambulant” would be more appropriate.


BBC News, 6 October 2015
Has America already had a female president?

As well as tending to her wheelchair-bound husband and campaigning on his behalf, Eleanor also pursued her own interests.

As well as tending to her wheelchair-user husband and campaigning on his behalf, Eleanor also pursued her own interests.

As above.

DPA emailed the editors at BCC News regarding this article and  received a reply from them stating that their writers follow a set of guidelines dealing specifically with how to respectfully address persons with disabilities. While it is puzzling how those terms make it through the editing process, DPA was glad that the editors have admitted their mistake, sharing with us their house style and amending the article.

Disability in Mad Max: Fury Road

By Jorain Ng

When I first saw the movie poster for Mad Max: Fury Road in May, I didn’t have high hopes for the show. I thought it was just going to be another stereotypical movie about a disabled superhero saving the day. I could not be more wrong. Fury Road is one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen!

There are many characters with disabilities in this movie including the female protagonist, the main antagonist, the antagonist’s sons, just to name a few.

Imperator Furiosa holding a shotgun.

Imperator Furiosa holding a shotgun. [ Image taken from ]

But my favorite character is the female protagonist called Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa has a physical disability, a left arm defect to be more precise. She wears a steampunk-looking prosthetic (one that actually looks realistic and usable by amputees) to help her perform her daily tasks.

Yet you barely notice her disability. Whether she’s driving a huge truck, reloading her gun or shooting enemies, her prosthetic arm is presented as a natural extension of her body. It’s there, we can see it. And it’s no big deal.

Her disability is also never a plot device. There is no tragic backstory regarding her disability, and her character is not used to inspire or motivate audience. In fact, her disability is never explained. We do not even know how or when she acquired her disability. The movie doesn’t want us to focus on her disability. They treat her disability as just another kind of difference – something I find really refreshing.

There is one particular scene that epitomises everything I love about the movie and the effortless manner it portrays disability. I have shared the movie clip from youtube below.

In this scene, Furiosa and her ally, Max, are fighting off their enemies who are attacking their ride. Furiosa reloads her shotgun and shoots at her enemies. When their ride catches fire, Furiosa quickly lowers the plow at the front of the truck which digs up sand, extinguishing the flames. When Furiosa noticed that more enemies are pursuing them, she opens the flap at the top of the truck and positions herself there to have a better shooting range. Max reloads her shotgun and passes it back to Furiosa who then proceeds to attack her enemies again.

These film sequences are done beautifully and realistically. Her prosthetic arm does not transform into a weapon – as you would expect from a disabled hero in action movies. It is simply portrayed as an assistive device that enables her to do things. And her allies like Max do not see her as a liability or feel sorry for her physical disability. They treat her as an equal.

I have watched many great action movies but this one takes the cake. I doubt the filmmakers ever read the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or even know about the social model of disability. But they’ve inadvertently done a great job in showing others how to have a more accurate representation of persons with disabilities.

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What It Should Have Been: Edition #5

By Jorain Ng

We’re now into Round Five of DPA’s public education initiative on proper terminology to describe persons with disabilities.


Straits Times, 03 February 2015
New home therapy fund to help patients

President Tony Tan and Mrs Mary Tan distributing red packets to patients during the Home Nursing Foundation’s SG50 jubilee dinner yesterday. More than 300 wheelchair- bound and semi-ambulant patients and caregivers attended the event.

President Tony Tan and Mrs Mary Tan distributing red packets to patients during the Home Nursing Foundation’s SG50 jubilee dinner yesterday. More than 300 wheelchair users and semi-ambulant patients and caregivers attended the event.

This has been mentioned several times. A person who uses a wheelchair is not actually confined to their chair. Instead, the chair is a tool that they use to have more independence. In that way, the wheelchair is actually a positive assistive tool and so the term ‘wheelchair user’ is a more apt term.


Straits Times, 01 February 2015
Running event – with a twist

Mr Goh Giin Huat (left), 40, with running guide Kelvin Lin Yong Wen, 30, during their weekly training session. Mr Goh will be one of five visually handicapped pacers in the Runninghour race…

In another first, the event will have five visually handicapped persons, accompanied by guides, taking on the role of pacers…

Mr Goh, a guitar instructor, started running only in 2012 when he and his visually handicapped friends were asked to join Runninghour, an informal support group started in 2009 by Mr John See Toh, 54, and his wife Chan Jan Siang, 37, both educators.

Mr Goh Giin Huat (left), 40, with running guide Kelvin Lin Yong Wen, 30, during their weekly training session. Mr Goh will be one of five pacers with a visual disability in the Runninghour race…

In another first, the event will have five persons with a visual disability, accompanied by guides, taking on the role of pacers…

Mr Goh, a guitar instructor, started running only in 2012 when he and his friends with a visual disability were asked to join Runninghour, an informal support group started in 2009 by Mr John See Toh, 54, and his wife Chan Jan Siang, 37, both educators.

Also covered before. People with disabilities are individuals first. So, refer to the person first, then the disability. The term “handicapped” is also an outdated or offensive term. Instead, say “pacers with visual impairment” or “pacers with a visual disability”.


Straits Times, 20 February 2015
Painful advice the recipe to save failing business

Acting on Mr Lim’s advice, she changed her business model to focus more on catering. This helps to create more jobs for her disabled beneficiaries, most of whom work in the central kitchen instead of her current outlets in Bugis+ and Jem. 

Acting on Mr Lim’s advice, she changed her business model to focus more on catering. This helps to create more jobs for her employees with disabilities, most of whom work in the central kitchen instead of her current outlets in Bugis+ and Jem.

People first, please. Also, the term “beneficiaries” implies that her workers with disabilities are receiving some form of charitable service, which they are not. They are hired to work in the company, so they should be referred to as employees or workers.


Straits Times, 1 March 2015
School Made More Accessible

Ansel, 15, suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a condition which causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass.

Ansel, 15, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a condition which causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass.


Here are more examples of incorrect terminology: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Have you spotted any other articles with terminology issues? Let me know in the comments below!

Heroes, Villains, and Victims: Images of Disability in Movies

By Jorain Ng

For years now, I have shied away from any films featuring characters with disabilities in the story. Movies like Forrest Gump (1994), I am Sam (2001) and Avatar (2009) all made me wrinkle my face in disgust. Disabled-hating bigot? How dare I.

But in all seriousness, I have reflected deeply about this because I love movies and respect Tom Hanks and James Cameron, and also because I am disabled.

Able-Bodied Actors as Disabled Characters

On the topic of disability in movies, some disability rights activists have expressed their disapproval of the casting of able-bodied actors as characters with disabilities. Christopher Shinn, an American playwright with a prosthetic limb, is one of the most outspoken advocate of this issue. Unhappy with the under-representation of actors with disabilities, Shin argues that able-bodied actors do not understand the lived reality of disability, and that casting them as disabled characters actually undercuts the power of their works.

“Able-bodied actors can listen to the disabled, can do research, can use imagination and empathy to create believable characters. But they can’t draw on their direct experience.” (Christopher Shinn)

While unmistakably righteous in its exhortation, I believe that this argument is deeply flawed for two reasons.

First, it conflates performance with representation. This is a common problem, to be sure, but I don’t think the answer to the dearth of actors with disabilities is to restrict disabled roles to them. This would create a kind of acting-ghetto which should be avoided at all costs. We don’t want a situation whereby actors with disabilities are typecast in disabled roles only.

Second, the call for actors with disabilities to play disabled roles implies that “disability” is some sort of monolithic group when it is, in fact, a very broad spectrum. Every persons with disabilities are unique in their own way. It’d be insanely difficult to find a person (much less an available, skilled actor) with precisely the same disability, acquired in precisely the same way, with precisely the same symptoms and behaviours.

Stereotypes of Disability

In my opinion, the point about Hollywood films is not that they cast able-bodied actors, but the way these films treat disability.

Characters with disabilities are commonly written into the plot for one reason: the disability. It sounds all fine and dandy, but the problem is that filmmakers do not examine the disability in the form of its actual physical, sensory and/or intellectual condition. The disability only figures into the plot or the character development as a device that allows the narrative to unfold.

In Elephant Man, for example, the main character, John Merrick was born with Proteous Syndrome that caused skin and bone growths over parts of his body. In the film, the condition is not even given a name and very little is said about it.

John Merrick - The Elephant Man

John Merrick. Credit:

So instead of exploring the disability, filmmakers deploy these characters to fit certain stereotypes in the story.

One of the most common stereotype is the ‘victim’, a character who is presented as a helpless object of pity or sympathy. In Elephant Man, the audience is urged to pity John Merrick. Because of his physical deformity, Merrick is exhibited as a monster in a Victorian freak show, brutally treated by his “owner”, suffers from health complications, and chased by an angry mob. He also dies at the end of the film.

The flip side of the victim stereotype is the hero or the inspiration, the character who proves his or her worth by overcoming his or her disability. Forrest Gump is a stellar example. By tracing the life of an intellectually disabled man performing extraordinary feats, filmmakers wanted to inspire and motivate the audience.

Captain HookCredit:

The third stereotype is the ‘villain’. It has become less popular in recent years. But in the past, physical disabilities have been deployed to suggest evil or depravity, such as the image of pirates as having missing hands, eyes and legs. Who can ever forget Captain Hook, the pirate with a hook for a hand, in Peter Pan (2003)? Or Darth Vader, the archetypal villain with prosthetic arms and legs in the Star Wars series?

Here are a few more examples of the way characters with disabilities are deployed by filmmakers. Next to each title, I’ve listed the stereotype that fits the character.

  • I am Sam: Victim turned Inspiration
  • Daredevil (2003): Superhero
  • Wild Wild West (1999): Villain
  • 300 (2007): Villain

You might argue that such stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. And sure enough, there are some people with disabilities who are saints and villains in real life. But these people are good (or bad) due to a combination of internal (knowledge, attitude, core values etc.) and external (family, friends, colleagues etc.) factors. Their disability could be one of the many factors, but it is definitely not THE deciding factor of their behaviour.

Also, I acknowledge that there are cases where characters with disabilities have been depicted as “normal”. But these are rare. And they have often been one dimensional, are commonly not given their own storylines and tend to act as supporting roles.


Considering the powerful influence media have over our lives, such stereotypes can have far-reaching consequences.

The victim stereotype objectifies persons with disabilities as helpless persons deserving of pity. It implies that disability is a condition we suffer from, and that we need to provide for, care for, and protect those with disabilities. In doing so, the stereotype oppresses and even disempowers persons with disabilities.

The ‘supercrip’ is no better. At first glance it may seem like a better stereotype than ‘victim’. But a positive stereotype is still a stereotype. It ignores the lived reality of most people with disabilities who struggle constantly with smaller challenges such as finding a wheelchair accessible bus and employment. It also implies that a person with disability only deserves respect if he or she can overcome the disability and perform extraordinary acts.

And finally the villain stereotype dehumanises persons with disabilities. It reduces them to nefarious individuals driven to crime or revenge by resentment of their condition. Needless to say, we can really do without such negative stereotypes in a society where prejudice and discrimination against persons with disabilities still abound.

Going Forward

Despite all its aforementioned implications, I admit there is some intangible benefit to be gained from having these characters on the big screen. The increased presence of disability in its various physical and intellectual impairments is a good way to get the public talking about disability. Any publicity is good publicity after all.

Rain Man (1988) is one such example. The film is centered on an autistic savant who aids in the personal growth of his able-bodied brother. The character is depicted as a math genius who is completely inept at everything else. Not surprisingly, the movie received bad press in the autistic community for stereotyping a person with autism. But others have pointed out, quite rightly, that the film helped increase public awareness of autism.

So some good does come out of bad situations. But these stereotypes can become a serious problem when it is the only thing viewers are presented with. Can you imagine having your kids watch movies with only these cookie-cutter characters?

Thus to counteract these largely inaccurate representations, it is important to give the audience a dose of reality, by which I mean presenting characters with disabilities in a more realistic light. These characters could be portrayed as working and living in various situations, with wide-ranging responsibilities, and not necessarily overcoming great odds to achieve their status. They can be Moms, Dads, chefs, priests, ministers, teachers, girlfriends, boyfriends or friends.

A few movies have done exactly just that. In  How to Train Your Dragon, three characters, Gobber, Toothless and later Hiccup wear prosthetics. And in the X-Men series,  Professor X is a wheelchair user. What is striking is that none of them are ever labelled as disabled in an obvious way; they’re just part of the crew like all the others. And Hiccup and Professor X have always been depicted as heroes who just happen to have a disability. The focus of the story, in other words, is on their characters, not their physical condition.

As a person with a physical disability, I would like to watch more movies like the two mentioned above. It could be centered on a character who just happens to have a disability going about his or her everyday life, maybe fighting off a zombie or two.

What do you think? Have you watched these movies before and felt the same way? Let me know in the comments!


‘Positive’ words paint unrealistic picture of disabled community

Straits Times Forum, 1 April 2014 (print edition)

THE Disabled People’s Association agrees with Dr William Wan in asking for greater sensitivity (“Use words with care”; last Friday). Words can not only hurt but also shape mindsets and perpetuate stereotypes.

We should also be aware of the downsides of using words and phrases like “brave”, “inspiration”, “extraordinary”, “overcoming one’s disability” and other supposedly positive terms to describe people with disabilities.

Such sentiments are usually expressed by the non-disabled.

Do people with disabilities really regard themselves as courageous, inspiring, or examples for others to emulate? Is it possible that many of them reject such labels and perceptions as patronising?

Most persons with disabilities see themselves as ordinary people leading ordinary lives. They do not feel they are “suffering from” their disabilities; these are simply a natural part of them, much like their ethnicity, blood type and eye colour. Nor do they think they are doing anything out of the norm.

Contrary to popular belief, a blind person or wheelchair user does not live his life “bravely”; a deaf person – like me – does not “overcome” communication barriers even if he does well at work; an academically successful student with autism is not more deserving of being hailed as a role model than a non-disabled student who does equally well.

Such accolades, though well-intended, reinforce the idea that persons with disabilities are overachievers who defy great odds to succeed in life. This is certainly a heartwarming notion, but it also paints a misleading view of the situation.

The disabled community, as a whole, is held back by mainstream society because of physical, institutional and attitudinal barriers around them.

What persons with disabilities want, and need, is not to be discriminated against because of their disabilities, but to have equal rights and fair treatment in all aspects of life.

These, and a realistic picture of the community, would help more to improve their lives.

Alvan Yap
Advocacy Executive
Disabled People’s Association

Two ST writers have responded here and here.

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:

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.

Help deaf, blind access broadcast, online media

Straits Times Forum, 15 November 2013 (print edition)

THE Disabled People’s Association supports Mr Alfred Yeo Chi Jin’s appeal in his letter (“Reach out to deaf community with English subtitles”; Wednesday).

To meet the needs of the local deaf community, and because hearing loss is a common issue faced by the elderly – a fact especially pertinent in view of our ageing population – media providers should take the initiative to implement Mr Yeo’s suggestion on having English subtitles for TV programmes and movies.

Recent drama series and certain variety shows on MediaCorp’s Channel 8 have led the way by having dual English-Chinese subtitles.

Another option would be to use the closed captioning facility, which allows the viewer to select the caption language or to switch it off entirely.

Closed captioning also enables the profoundly deaf to understand better what they are watching as it includes text descriptions of sounds such as “car engine splutters” and “jazzy music plays”.

The use of closed captioning has been around for decades and is common in countries like Australia, Britain and the United States where such access is mandated by law.

As Singapore takes pride in keeping ahead of the technology curve and is also well on its way to an all-digital media environment, it should be more than feasible to roll out such services for TV programmes within a reasonable timeframe.

Similarly, videos uploaded online by government ministries, local organisations, educational institutions and companies should include subtitles, or, failing that, transcripts. Accessibility of online media for the blind is another area which requires more awareness and work.

Singapore has come a long way in improving accessibility for its citizens and residents with disabilities.

But while we have done well in providing facilities which are more tangible and come easily to public consciousness, such as ramps and lifts for wheelchair users, we need to keep in mind, too, the less visible needs of the deaf and the blind communities in accessing information via broadcast and online media.

Alvan Yap Boon Sheng
Advocacy Executive
Disabled People’s Association

Read the replies from Starhub, MediaCorp and Media Development Authority.

What It Should Have Been: Edition #4

By Alvan Yap

There goes the bell – we’re into round 4.

We’ve been seeing much more sunshine and positivity from the mainstream media. There seems to be less bounding and suffering and handicapping going on these days. Either that, or we’re missing a lot of them.

Anyway, the day when this column – by round 12 perhaps? – is no longer needed will be a happy day. I’m looking forward to it.

Meanwhile, the slough continues.


Straits Times, 26 August 2013
70,000 walkers pound the streets for a cause

Elderly and wheelchair-­bound residents took the spotlight in Yuhua.

Elderly residents and wheelchair users took the spotlight in Yuhua.

This error has appeared in examples in every column so far, and has been explained too.

Un-bound the wheelchair users, shall we?

Set them free.


TODAY, 6 September 2013
Special needs school to start 3D programme 

Mr Izad said while the school has students who suffer from only autism and are in the high-functioning Boost class, it also takes in those with profound disabilities, some of whom require wheelchair support and even feeding tubes.

Mr Izad said while the school has students who have only autism and are in the high-functioning Boost class, it also takes in those with profound disabilities, some of whom require wheelchair support and even feeding tubes.

(Note it is not clear if Mr Izad is the one who used the term “suffers from” or if it was paraphrased by the reporter.)

This has been covered in the previous column. But let me try another analogy: Saying that a person “suffers from autism” makes as much sense as saying Zoe Tay “suffers from being Chinese” or that Daniel Craig “suffers from having blue eyes”.

Autism is not a disease or illness; it is a neurological condition inherent to the person.


Synopsis of “Sudden”

Guo Zheng Xin dies while Qiliang is wheel­chair bound.

Guo Zheng Xin dies while Qiliang is injured and becomes a wheel­chair user.

As above. (Note the context: they were involved in an accident.)


Braddell MRT Station


"Handicapped" is, like, so passé. (photo by Alvan/DPA)

“Handicapped” is, like, so passé. (photo by Alvan/DPA)

Accessible Toilet or Toilet for the Disabled

Also covered before. Don’t use ‘handicapped’ to describe people with physical disabilities. Say “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” (depending on context).


By the way, if you’re here for the first time, have a look at more gory examples at Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

What It Should Have Been: Edition #3

By Alvan Yap

Welcome to the third round of DPA’s public education initiative on the use of proper terminology to describe people with disabilities. (If you’re reading about this for the first time, find out more about Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

For this edition, I’ll like to plead: Please spare us the suffering.

What do I mean? Read on and find out.


Yahoo! Singapore, 5 August 2013:
Horse-riding gives disabled ‘confidence’ and ‘independence’
(Original story can be found here.)

One beneficiary, 14-year-old Alina Seow, who suffers from cerebral palsy, says that these horse-riding sessions have “greatly improved” her posture and balance.

One beneficiary, 14-year-old Alina Seow, who has cerebral palsy, says that these horse-riding sessions have “greatly improved” her posture and balance.

Let me quote from just three sources (and there’re a lot more!).

As our very own SG Enable states, phrases such as “suffers from” and “afflicted by” carry negative connotations. In most cases, you can simply say that a person “has” a certain disability.

The UK’s Office for Disability Issues explains: Avoid phrases like ‘suffers from’ which evoke discomfort or pity and suggest constant pain and a sense of hopelessness.

The National Center on Disability & Journalism gives us moreThese terms carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or living a reduced quality of life. Not every person with a disability “suffers,” is a “victim” or is “stricken.” It is preferable to use neutral language when describing a person who has a disability, simply stating the facts about the nature of the disability. For example, “He has muscular dystrophy.”

(Yahoo! Singapore has, unfortunately, not replied to nor acknowledged DPA’s repeated emails on this. We are sure Yahoo! Singapore staff has read them, because they used an extract from our initial email here.

Update on 20 August: Yahoo! has replied and amended the sentence above. We wish to thank the editorial staff at Yahoo! for their understanding and accommodation of our request.)


Straits Times, 14 August 2013
First insurance scheme in Singapore for children, young adults suffering from autism

First insurance scheme in Singapore for children, young adults suffering from autism

First insurance scheme in Singapore for children, young adults with autism

As above. And persons with autism will not appreciate being told they are “suffering from” autism. Disability is a condition; it is not tragedy.


Straits Times, 15 August 2013
Income launches first insurance scheme for autistic kids, youth

The entire article, including the headline, is peppered by words and phrases such as autistic children and young adults, autistic people, autistic community, autistic son.

The more appropriate terms are children and young adults with autism, people with autism, autism community, son who has autism.

People first, please.

SG Enable says: People with disabilities are individuals first. Their disabling condition or conditions are only one part of who they are. So as far as possible, refer to the person first, then the disability.

Compare and contrast with TODAY’s news report “NTUC Income launches insurance plan for children, young adults with autism” on the same issue which uses mostly people-first language.


Straits Times, 19 August 2013
Blind PhD holder proof of meritocracy

The winner of the National Youth Award last year also helps other handicapped people at the Society for the Physically Disabled.

The winner of the National Youth Award last year also helps other people with disabilities at the Society for the Physically Disabled.

“Handicapped” is an outdated and negative word. It’s also better to use people-first language which is more positive and does not imply the person’s disability is his/her identity.


Despite emailing at least five different Straits Times reporters about the terminology issues in their articles, not a single one has replied or acknowledged DPA’s concern. Nevertheless, we have seen improvements recently and are hopeful the editorial staff at the ST have taken note of these issues, even if they chose not to engage us at DPA. (Note we have not included the names of the reporters in all the compilations here, because our aim is media and public education, and not to point fingers at individuals.)

Other organisations have been more forthcoming and open to our requests. In particular, DPA wishes to also take the opportunity to convey our appreciation to the writer/agency for the site, SALT Online, the Workers’ Party (a special thanks to Ms Lee Li Lian), and Womentalktv – the former two for amending and omitting inappropriate words/phrases in their online articles, and the latter two for agreeing to include subtitles/transcripts in their online videos in future. Thank you very much!

Lastly, the United Nations Convention for the Rights of People (CRPD) with Disabilities came into effect in Singapore on 18 August 2013. It calls for respect and equality for people with disabilities – and this extends to the way they are described in the media.

In the spirit of the CRPD, join us in banishing negative stereotypes, labelling and, yes, ‘suffering’ of people with disabilities.