Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Image shows a yellow ballot box in between two people. One person in red has a speech bubble at the top of his head with a term 'Disability Support?". Another figure also has a speech bubble at the top of his head with the sentence, 'What about disability inclusion?'.

General Elections 2015: What’s in it for people with disabilities?

By Jorain Ng

As a first time voter, a disability advocate and a person with disability, I have taken a huge interest in hearing where the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) and opposition parties stand on disability-specific issues.

Disappointingly, not much has been said about persons with disabilities in their manifestos and at their political rallies. Yet this does not mean the disability community is forgotten, neglected or ignored by the incumbent and contesting parties. I can spot at least three areas where the parties have proposed policies that indirectly cater to the needs of persons with disabilities.

Healthcare 

In their manifesto, the PAP promised affordable and high quality healthcare to every Singaporean. They gave a brief outline of how they intend to achieve this goal such as increasing support for caregivers, boosting primary care and providing universal coverage through MediShield Life.

I believe the Government is referring to the Foreign Domestic Worker Levy Concession for Persons with Disabilities and Caregivers Training Grant when they talk about increasing caregiver support. I could be wrong. In any case, I’d like to hear a more concrete and detailed PAP proposal to enhance the quality and affordability of healthcare, rather than just in passing.

In contrast, the Workers’ Party (WP) proposed a set of comprehensive policies to improve healthcare affordability. For instance, when talking about enhancing primary care subsidies, the WP suggested that the monthly household income cap to qualify for subsidies for primary care to be raised to the median monthly household income per member. They also have a detailed plan to support full-time informal caregivers such as giving them yearly CPF top-ups and flexible work arrangements.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has a different solution to help Singaporeans from low to middle income households receive medical treatment. They called for a universal health-care system that pays for all health-care expenses through a single pool of funds, which is contributed by all Singaporeans and the Government.

If adopted, I have no doubt that this system will enable all Singaporean with disabilities from low to middle income households to receive proper medical treatment. But I think the system should be extended to non-Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents with disabilities who can also contribute to the pool of funds. Healthcare is a basic human right. It should be made affordable and accessible to all persons with disabilities living in Singapore.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) has a different healthcare proposal. Specifically, they called for a liberalised Medisave that pays for hospitalisation, outpatient charges and medical coverage offered by private insurers.

I have some misgivings about how such a policy would work for persons with disabilities. Singapore has expressed a reservation on Article 25 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities so private insurers are not legally obliged to provide insurance to persons with disabilities. As a result, persons with disabilities often have difficulty getting insurance. Some might not have enough money in their Medisave account to cover their medical expenses. The focus should really be on lowering the cost of healthcare so that persons with disabilities have access to these services at reasonable/affordable prices. But that is just my two-cents.

Employment

The PAP manifesto did not mention any specific plans to increase income and employment for Singaporeans. Instead, they listed all their achievements such as how they’ve helped older workers stay employed through the Special Employment Credit and helped low-income workers through the Progressive Wage Model and Workfare. Indeed, the PAP has made efforts to keep unemployment low even for people with disabilities. Last year, they established a new agency called SG Enable to provide services for persons with disabilities, and one of their services is employment placement and support.

This is great news for the disability community. But I’d like to see more being done to protect employees with disabilities from discrimination. Currently the issue is not just about getting people with disabilities jobs, but also ensuring that they can maintain the job and have career progression. In a recent study conducted by my organisation, the Disabled People’s Association (DPA), we found that persons with disabilities often face career stagnation or are the first to go when their companies undergo restructuring. This is worrisome, so I’d like to hear how the PAP plan to address this discriminatory practice.

The WP, SDP and SDA proposed many comprehensive employment and wage security schemes in their manifestos. In particular, the SDP and WP proposed a retrenchment insurance scheme for workers who are laid-off from work. These policies could help persons who acquire a disability during their earning years and who find themselves laid-off from work due to their disability.

But, as it is with the PAP manifesto, I’d like to know if the WP, SDP and SDA have any plans to protect persons with disabilities from discrimination in employment? If yes, how do they plan to achieve this goal? And what are their thoughts on  anti-discrimination legislation?

Public Transport

With respect to transport, the PAP manifesto only listed their achievements such as concessions for people with disabilities and transport vouchers for low-income families. These schemes have indeed benefited many persons with disabilities including me.

But there are still areas for improvement in the transport system, especially in regard to the infrastructure and customer service. It would be great to hear the PAP talk more about these transport issues and their proposed solutions.

Interestingly, the WP wrote an article about how they advocated for improved accessibility to public transport for persons with disabilities. For instance, they suggested installing bus announcements at bus stops to inform commuters with a visual disability of the incoming bus service numbers. This policy recommendation, among others, are similar to DPA’s. But apart from this one article posted on their website, transport issues facing persons with disabilities have not surfaced in their manifesto or at their political rallies.

The SDP and SDA, on the other hand, do not have any concrete plans or policy recommendations to improve the accessibility of public transport for persons with disabilities.

Be Informed When You Vote

Elections determine the future of Singapore. And I hope to see a future where all persons with disabilities are given fair and equal opportunities to participate in society – whether in healthcare, employment, recreation, sport etc. This is why it’s extremely important that all eligible Singaporeans, including those of us with a disability, read the parties’ manifestos and attend their political rallies to hear where they stand on these important issues.

What do you think? Which party do you think will best represent the interests of the disability community in Parliament?

Disclaimer: DPA has no affiliation with and is not promoting any one party. DPA is only summarising the points of the campaigning parties’ manifestos and where they stand on disability-specific needs.

For further reading:

Read PAP manifesto: https://www.pap.org.sg/Manifesto/FOREWORD

Read DPA’s booklet on Singapore and the UN CRPD: http://www.dpa.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Singapore-and-UN-CRPD.pdf

Read the Enabling Masterplan: http://app.msf.gov.sg/Portals/0/Topic/Issues/EDGD/Enabling%20Masterplan%202012-2016%20Report%20(8%20Mar).pdf

Read WP Manifesto here: http://wpge2015.s3-ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/29111924/Manifesto-2015-Official-online-version.pdf

Read WP’s public transport proposal: http://v1.wp.sg/2015/07/improving-public-transport-for-people-with-disabilities/

Read DPA’s booklet on public transport: http://www.dpa.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Achieving-Inclusion-in-Transport.pdf

Read SDA manifesto: http://singaporedemocraticalliance.sg/sdas-general-election-2015-manifesto/

Learn more about SDP’s healthcare proposal: http://yoursdp.org/publ/sdp_39_s_alternatives/healthcare/31 

Learn more about SDP’s retrenchment scheme: http://yoursdp.org/publ/sdp_39_s_alternatives/economy/sdp_proposes_restart_to_support_retrenched_workers/25-1-0-1488 

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Inclusion, the Elections and Disability

by Dr Marissa Medjeral-Mills

The concept of inclusion is not a new one in Singapore. Many of us live and work alongside people of different races, cultures and religions. What is less familiar is the idea that inclusion should involve persons with disabilities.

Historically, persons with disabilities were hidden away from the public. Growing up in Singapore in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was rarely the case that I would see persons with disabilities in public or hear them spoken about in the media. Even if persons with disabilities were mentioned, they were often portrayed as objects of sympathy or charity. Persons with disabilities were believed to be suffering from an ailment and as such were not normal and seen as the ‘other’. I was lucky enough to attend a school that had a class for people with special needs and as such was able to form impressions of disability that were not solely based on the media and cultural biases. Even so, I will be honest and say that I was not completely comfortable with the concept of disability. I continued to make assumptions about the experience of being a disabled person that I now know to be wrong.

In recent years, the Government has made great efforts to try and support people with disabilities and more importantly, in my opinion, to change people’s beliefs about being disabled. The most significant step towards this change was the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in November 2013 and implementing the Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, which is the national policy to realise the goals of the CRPD. By doing this, the Government embraced the social model of disability, which views disability as the interaction between a person with some form of impairment and barriers in their surrounding environment. This is a change from previous models of disability because it does not locate the disability solely within the person. Additionally, this model puts the onus on society to identify and remove barriers. This model recognises the value that a person with a disability can add to society given the right support, which is different from viewing persons with disabilities as objects of charity who need lifelong care.

In collaboration with Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs), the Government has created a number of programmes to improve the education of persons with disabilities, increase employment opportunities, make public transport more affordable and accessible and offer more affordable healthcare. As someone who runs a VWO, the Disabled People’s Association, which advocates for the integration of persons with disabilities into society, I have welcomed the concerted effort to better the circumstances of those with a disability in Singapore. Although there is still work to be done in expanding the view of disability to include invisible disabilities such as chronic mental health conditions and those with developmental delay and intellectual disabilities, on the whole I am happy with what has been achieved in such a short space of time.

Yet, given the current preparations for the general elections in Singapore, I cannot help but wonder why not much has been said about persons with disabilities in the media, at political rallies and in party manifestos. Even more disconcerting is the lack of campaigning directed towards persons with disabilities. Due to the fact that voting is compulsory for all Singaporeans, persons with disabilities should have their votes courted by political parties. It is estimated that at least 97,200 Singaporeans have a disability and a significant number of them should be eligible to vote.

Even though persons with disabilities are a minority group in Singapore, members of this diverse community are citizens who deserve the right to have their needs and concerns addressed by those who would run the Government. It could be argued that not all persons with disabilities have the mental capacity to vote or to have an informed opinion about who to vote for. Yet, this misses the point. Treating persons with disabilities as a group of voters worthy of being campaigned to, regardless of their mental and/or physical capacity, is an important part of wholeheartedly including them in society.

One might say that campaigning to persons with disabilities as a group reinforces the idea that they are different from other Singaporeans, thus undermining their inclusion into society. However, to gloss over the fact that the disability community have unique needs would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Admittedly, it is a balancing act to treat persons with disabilities on an equal basis as any other Singaporean and at the same time address disability-specific concerns such as special needs education. Yet, this is not an issue that is unique to the disability community. It is possible to balance speaking to the needs of women in the workplace whilst not making women feel segregated from the rest of society. Much in the same way, persons with disabilities have a range of concerns ranging from disability specific ones to ones that affect the wider population. Recognising this is how voters with disabilities can be treated as any other citizen who should have their political support fought for.

Moving forward I hope to see the progress towards including persons with disabilities become more robust in nature. Inclusion is a journey of progressive realisation, where as a society we should constantly re-evaluate how far we have come and how much more can be done to integrate marginalised groups. I would love to see Singapore move from addressing the day to day needs of persons with disabilities to seeing how they can become more involved in the political process, both as voters and,  in the future, as election candidates.

Dr Marissa Medjeral-Mills is the Executive Director of the Disabled People’s Association.

Lesser-known facts about community-based rehabilitation

By Jorain Ng

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

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

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

Here are some lesser-known facts about CBR:

CBR is not just about rehabilitation.

IMG_7096

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

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

CBR is all about empowerment.

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

CBR as a concept varies across and within countries.

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

Malaysia is the leading country in CBR.

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

CBR is more appropriate for developing countries.

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

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

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

CBR is a strategy for inclusion.

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

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

Enforce Stricter Laws on Disabled Parking Lots

By Jorain Ng

A man leaving a market walks towards the parking lot, when he spotted a car without the SG Enable-issued label parked in a disabled parking lot.[1] He approached the car owner and advised her to move her car, but was rebuffed by the car owner who replied that she did not mind getting fined as she was wealthy.[2]

This is a very disheartening scenario, and one that happens frequently in Singapore. It seems like once every few months a member of the public writes in to Singapore’s newspaper forum citing another abuse of disabled parking lots. All these acts of violation could be prevented if we pass stricter laws on disabled parking.

Although accessibility for persons with mobility impairments is my biggest concern, there are other arguments that point to this solution as well.

The law regulating the use of disabled parking lots lacks bite. Rule 29(1) of the Parking Places Act states that no person shall park in any reserved parking lot unless he is authorised by the Superintendent and unless such authorisation is displayed on the vehicle.[3] Offenders only pay a small price ranging from $25 to $80, depending on the type of vehicle.[4] It is hardly surprising that drivers without the SG Enable-issued labels continue to abuse these disabled parking spaces .[5]

The opposition would argue that imposing stricter laws does not tackle the root cause – the cause being apathy or a general lack of awareness and sensitivity towards the needs of persons with disabilities. Indeed, real kindness cannot be legislated, given the spontaneity of this natural human sentiment that prompts us, at the level of our souls and spirits, to have a care toward each other.

But this rebuttal neglects the symbolic significance of having stricter laws. Stricter laws will give a certain gravitas to the long-standing issue of abuse and send a strong message to the public that continued abuse is a serious matter that will not be tolerated by the Government. It will also signify the Government’s commitment to protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Opponents might also argue in favour of the soft approach. Using public awareness and moral appeals to influence public opinion and behaviour, in their opinion, should be the way to go. They inform, educate, and encourage individuals to “do the right thing” which, in this case, is respecting the use of disabled parking lots.

But moral suasion alone will not stop the abuse of disabled parking lots. Ensuring public compliance most often requires the use of both the carrot and the stick. The Singapore government acknowledges this fact and, in their approach to litter prevention for example, continues to enforce strict laws on littering despite conducting “Clean and Green” campaigns.

Enforcing stricter laws will also ensure greater accessibility for persons with physical disabilities. For most wheelchair users traveling to places with no wheelchair-accessible bus services and sheltered linkway from MRT stations, hiring a wheelchair accessible bus or taxi is the preferred mode of transport. The only potential drawback is that the drivers cannot find an available disabled parking spot which will enable them to assist their passenger in boarding and disembarking the vehicle smoothly. Enforcing stricter laws will ensure that these drivers and the passengers they ferry are ensured access to the disabled parking lots.

Another argument opponents might make is that it is not easy to ensure public compliance simply by enforcing stricter laws because of jurisdiction issues. SG Enable may be the agency responsible for issuing the disabled parking labels but they have no legal authority to punish drivers who park at disabled parking lots without authorisation. Currently the Housing Development Board (HDB) have the jurisdiction to fine and give demerit points to illegal parkers at HDB flats. But at other places like shopping malls and private estates, there is no legal authority that can oversee and enforce the law.

Admittedly, there is currently no solution for this issue of jurisdiction. Yet, there are areas where enforcement is possible, like the HDB flats mentioned above. It is at these places where drivers ferrying persons with disabilities or drivers with physical disabilities themselves can benefit from stricter enforcement.

For those of us who are not physically disabled, like the lady mentioned at the start of this paper, it is easy to overlook or even disregard the needs of persons with disabilities. This is where the law, backed in teeth and bite, in conjunction with public education must come into the picture. The outcome will be a Singapore society that is barrier-free and inclusive for persons with disabilities.

ENDNOTES

[1] In Singapore, the SG Enable-issued labels authorises the use of disabled parking lot for a certain amount of time depending on who the driver is. Drivers with physical disabilities can park in the designated lot for any duration, while drivers ferrying people with physical disabilities can temporarily park in the lot for up to 60 minutes only, when ferrying passengers who require the use of bulky mobility aids and must shift their vehicles after bringing their passenger to a safe place. SG Enable, “Car Park Label Scheme for Persons with Physical Disabilities,” https://www.sgenable.sg/schemes/accessibility/car-park-label-scheme-for-persons-with-physical-disabilities/ (accessed 5 Dec 2014).

[2] This is an actual case that occurred in December 29, 2014. Ong Soon Kiat, “Enforce law on handicap parking more strictly,” The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2014, http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/enforce-law-handicap-parking-more-strictly-20141229 (accessed 10 January 2015).

[3] ‘Parking Places Act,’ No. 5 of 1974, in Chapter 214, Section 8, Republic of Singapore Government Gazette Acts Supplement, http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;page=0;query=DocId%3A%22777ad723-96ca-4c53-bd25-37190b6f1576%22%20Status%3Ainforce%20Depth%3A0;rec=0#pr29-he-. (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

[4] A Motor Cycle pays a $25 fine, Motor Car pays $50 fine, and Heavy Vehicles pays $80 fine. For more information, please see Housing & Development Board, “Parking Rules and Fine Amount,” HDB InfoWEB, “Parking Rules and Fine Amount,” https://www.hdb.gov.sg/fi10/fi10327p.nsf/w/CarPark1RulesNFine?OpenDocument#ActiveTabContent (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

[5] Goh Chin Lian, “Nicholas Aw: ‘We need laws to protect rights of the disabled’,” Singapolitics, 16 Nov. 2013, http://www.singapolitics.sg/supperclub/nicholas-aw-we-need-laws-protect-rights-disabled (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Goh Chin Lian. “Nicholas Aw: ‘We need laws to protect rights of the disabled’.” Singapolitics, 16 Nov. 2013, http://www.singapolitics.sg/supperclub/nicholas-aw-we-need-laws-protect-rights-disabled (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

HDB InfoWEB. “Parking Rules and Fine Amount.” https://www.hdb.gov.sg/fi10/fi10327p.nsf/w/CarPark1RulesNFine?OpenDocument#ActiveTabContent (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

Ong Soon Kiat. “Enforce law on handicap parking more strictly.” The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2014, http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/enforce-law-handicap-parking-more-strictly-20141229 (accessed 10 January 2015).

‘Parking Places Act.’ No. 5 of 1974, in Chapter 214, Section 8, Republic of Singapore Government Gazette Acts Supplement, http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;page=0;query=DocId%3A%22777ad723-96ca-4c53-bd25-37190b6f1576%22%20Status%3Ainforce%20Depth%3A0;rec=0#pr29-he-. (accessed 5 Dec. 2014)

SG Enable. “Car Park Label Scheme for Persons with Physical Disabilities.” https://www.sgenable.sg/schemes/accessibility/car-park-label-scheme-for-persons-with-physical-disabilities/ (accessed 5 Dec 2014).

A Nebulous Relationship: Chronic Mental Illness & Disability

By Jorain Ng

Today I’d like to answer a question that has befuddled the minds of many thinking about the relationship between chronic mental illness and disability. By ‘chronic’, I mean a long duration of illness, which may include periods of seeming wellness interrupted by exacerbations of acute symptoms. Chronic depression, schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are such examples.

The question is simply this: Is chronic mental illness a disability?

If you came here looking for a straightforward answer, you’d be severely disappointed to know that there is none.

This is a really tricky question which answer varies according to the organisation or individual you’re asking, and so the topic deserves its own blog post.

Chronic Mental Illness is a Disability

From the standpoint of my organisation, the Disabled People’s Association, chronic mental illness is a form of disability.

We see disability as a condition which restricts a person’s mental, sensory or mobility functions. By this definition, a person with chronic mental illness should be seen as having a disability because the chronic illness, if highly debilitating, may lead to the permanent impairment of the person’s sensory, mobility or mental functions.

Muscular dystrophy (MD) is one such example. The condition is caused by muscle diseases that weaken the musculoskeletal system and hamper locomotion. A person with MD could even lose his or her ability to walk. In this sense MD is as much a chronic illness as it is a disability.

Moreover, when one considers the implications of having chronic mental illness, there can be little doubt that the effects are similar to those living with a disability.

Like persons with disabilities, those with chronic mental illness face various barriers such as stigmatisation which hinders their full and effective participation in society. The reality today is that many employees will not voluntarily disclose that they suffer from a mental health disorder. Those who do disclose on their resume often face difficulty finding suitable employment.

Singapore Government’s Stance

The Singapore government takes a different stance from that of DPA’s, which can sometimes appear to be contradictory.

Although a signatory of the United Nations (UN) Conventions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which includes chronic mental illness under the disability category, the various government agencies and ministries do not always recognise the relationship in practice.

On one hand, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS)/Social Service Institute (SSI) lists an SSI course on Mental Illness under the disability category. On the other hand, persons with chronic mental illness are not eligible for policies, schemes, and initiatives such as the Open Door Programme, which are intended for persons with disabilities.

What might be the reason for this confusing stance?

It must be noted that chronic mental illness as a disability is a modern concept recently established in the past decade.

In the past, the Singapore government saw both groups as clearly distinct from each other, and this categorisation informed the way in which policymakers formulated policies intended for persons with chronic mental illness and disabilities. What we see today is a result of years of policymaking. Removing the distinction will require radical policy changes that will affect various disability service providers and mental health agencies like the Institute of Mental Health and Singapore Association for Mental Health.

That the Singapore government is hesitant in fully committing to the definition in the UN Convention in practice is therefore not surprising.

Why the Definition Matters

This should not be news to anyone.

But how one defines or indeed categorises a condition, especially those of a permanent nature, can include and exclude a person from receiving the necessary accommodation (financial support, employment support etc.) to study and work an equal basis with others.

To borrow an earlier example, the Open Door Programme initiated by SG Enable is a policy aimed at incentivising and thereby enhancing the employability of persons with disabilities. A person with disability looking for employment may, for instance, apply for training grants to attend pre-employment and skill training. But this government-funded initiative is not available for persons with chronic mental illness simply because they do not meet the eligibility criteria.

What, then?

What does this mean for a person with chronic mental illness needing accommodation in employment and education?

Given the unofficial recognition of chronic mental illness as a disability, it will be wise for any person with chronic mental illness to approach the relevant government agencies like the NCSS for enquiries on the policies, schemes, and initiatives for persons with disabilities.

While their answers may not always be forthcoming, you can be sure that the NCSS is sympathetic to the needs of every persons living in Singapore, including those with chronic mental illness.

As of now, refashioning the categories according to the UN Convention in Singapore will be a difficult task, and one which will take years. The Singapore government will require the unanimous support from all disability agencies and mental health institutions to make it a reality. And this support can only be garnered through dialogue sessions, conferences, and consultations  – hefty work which will require all three sides to see eye to eye on pertinent areas.

X-Men United: The Singapore Edition

by Alvan Yap

In my latest Straits Times Forum letter – and which turned out to be my final one as a DPA staff – the paper’s forum editor, as usual, made minimal changes to it. This wasn’t by lucky chance; I always write such that it’s ‘publishable’ enough to have the editorial powers-that-be retain my own words and tone as much as possible.

But one edit made me frown again, as usual. In all his finite wisdom, the editor amended “disability community” in my original letter to “disabled community” in the published version. Now, to me, these are separate concepts, though the difference can be subtle to most others. “Disabled community” seems to merely refer to a group of persons with disabilities, which is fine and dandy.

But what I was referring to went beyond that – I say “disability community” because this group sees “disability” as a form of self-identify vis-a-vis other communities in the larger society. This community also includes allies from among the non-disabled – such as family members, caregivers, friends, as well as professionals in related medical, educational, social services and academic fields.

It’s true that “disability” comprises of an almost unimaginable diversity. After all, you’ll struggle to see any similarity between a person with Asperger’s, one with bilateral profound hearing loss, another with mild intellectual disability, and yet another with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user. The spectrum of disability is dazzlingly wide and deep.

Making A Stand
We are, however, bound by a common trait – we identify ourselves as having a disability, but one which we do not perceive as a tragedy. Our disability is ‘common’ in that it is a natural part of us, of our bodies, and as part of our self-identity.

In a way, as in the X-Men series of comics and movies, we are all different (every member of X-Men has different mutant powers), but also the same (they are, at least initially, regarded as subversive outcasts and biological misfits by the so-called normal people).

But, like any other minority group which is marginalised and disadvantaged, we from the disability community seek to fight against the discrimination, stigma and misconceptions that are linked to our disabilities. Note this is not about political correctness or motherhood statements about “building an inclusive society” though.

It is about rejecting patronising attitudes and patchwork solutions. It is about constructing genuine understanding and acceptance. It is about being uncompromising and unrelenting in our struggle towards equal rights, equal treatment and equal access to all the things we are entitled to – as human beings and as full-fledged citizens of our nation.

It is about putting an end to the very real tragedies that have befallen persons with disabilities in the past and which continue to befall them today – the children who were denied access to education, the adults who were unable to find gainful employment and thus condemned to a lifetime of perjury, the families left destitute and in despair because of the expense or lack of services for their kids with severe disabilities, and too many others.

Days Of Future Past 
So here are three things I want to see and which I will work towards.

* Persons with disabilities and disability organisations to adopt a big-picture view, reach out to one another, break out of the ‘silo mentality’ (I loathe corporate jargon, but this one I’m happy to hijack), and come together for our common goals such as disability rights and legislation.

* A disability community in Singapore that identifies as one, is united and advocates for the cause with one strong, clear voice. Can we make use of disability mega-events such as the Purple Parade and the ASEAN Para Games next year to forge this sense of community? Can we also seize on the growing emphasis on social welfare issues and the ratification of the CRPD to boost our case?

* More persons with disabilities, on their own merit, to get into leadership positions, whether in schools, organisations (especially disability VWOs!), companies. More importantly, once they get there, to speak up for the rights of their disability groups and the community as a whole.

I hope you join me too.

***

Goodbye & Hello Again!
This is an opportune moment to say I’m moving on from the Disabled People’s Association. This is my last week with DPA.

Thank you very much for your support and kindness during my time at DPA. Whatever successes and positive impact I had in my advocacy and public education work here were, in part, only possible because of your help and sharing. I’m also grateful to have had the chance to learn from the many big-hearted professionals among you who have been working towards a more inclusive and enlightened society.

Speaking of an enlightened society.. to my fellow peers with disabilities (or, to my fellow X-Men): I’m immensely honoured to know you. I have learnt so much from you – persons with autism, intellectual disability, visual impairment and physical disability. Just as how you are able to see me as a person beyond my deafness, likewise I am now able to truly look past our superficial differences and focus on our common ‘superpowers’ instead. I believe, too, we are both our disability and much more than our disability.

To my colleagues in the social services family: We have plodded a long way from the dark ages – at least, when it comes to disability awareness and accessibility issues – and the end point is someplace foggy over the horizon. We’ll never see it nor will we ever get there, to be honest, like we’ll never totally eradicate racism, sexism, ageism and bigotry of all sorts. But hey, we’re making progress and having fun and finding meaning and an ineffable sense of purpose in life along the way – that surely counts for something. (Or is it.. everything?)

Though I will be leaving DPA as an employee, I will remain its member and volunteer, and I continue to stay in the social services field. The disability rights movement will always be close to my heart – I pledge to continue, in my own way, to be an advocate for the cause.

Take care; we’ll meet again.

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.

Law needed to protect rights of disabled people

Straits Times Forum, 27 July, 2013 (print edition)

THE Disabled People’s Association (DPA) welcomes the Government’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and we look forward to its fulfilment.

We also support Maruah president Braema Mathi’s views (“Further ways to ensure equality for disabled people”; Wednesday).

In certain cases, election officers might lack the necessary skills to communicate with disabled voters, for example, those with multiple disabilities such as the deaf-blind.

Those with both physical and intellectual disability or autism might also not be comfortable with, or refuse to interact with, a stranger (the election officer).

Are there measures in place to ensure election officers are able to properly assist voters with special needs? If not, we are concerned that allowing only election officers to help disabled people vote will, in some cases, result in them being effectively deprived of their vote or less likely to vote.

The DPA also calls on the Government to implement a comprehensive anti-discriminatory law to protect the rights of people with disabilities, as the current legislative framework is somewhat lacking.

For instance, the use of guide dogs for the blind is governed by the Environmental Public Health Act and Rapid Transit Systems Act, and supported by a Ministry of Social and Family Development statement.

These lack bite because there are no penalties for violators. As a result, time and again, we see media reports on people with guide dogs being turned away, without justification, from places they are legally allowed to access.

There is also an economic case for such legislation. Comprehensive disability laws in the United States (Americans With Disabilities Act), Britain (Equality Act), Australia (Disability Discrimination Act) and Japan (Fundamental Law for Disabled Persons) have not led to corporations and businesses fleeing these countries en masse.

Instead, these laws have strengthened the countries’ reputations as they are seen to care for, value and respect the rights of their resident workers.

To attract and retain top talent, we recommend that Singapore do no less.

Lastly, the DPA realises that doing the above would not automatically lead to the complete resolution of the issue of discrimination against disabled people, but it would certainly be a significant step towards our aspiration of being an inclusive and just society.

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