Looking Back at 2014: A Year End Review

By Jorain Ng

Happy New Year!

As we bid farewell to 2014, I wish to highlight and review the key milestones in Singapore’s disability landscape for those who happened to miss it, and to provide a general overview of how far Singapore has come in making the society more inclusive for persons with disabilities.

New Open Door Programme

On 24 April, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) introduced a new Open Door Programme (ODP) aimed at incentivising and thereby enhancing the employment of persons with disabilities.

Under this scheme, Singapore-based or registered companies can apply for funding support to hire, train and integrate persons with disabilities such as job re-design and workplace accommodation. Companies can apply for funding for both new and existing workers with disabilities. The funding cap of $100,000 per company has also been lifted.

For those interested in ODP or wish to apply for ODP, please click here.

My concern is that few companies are aware of and therefore not tapping into this scheme. My organisation, the Disabled People’s Association (DPA), have been receiving calls from various companies asking about the available schemes for workers with disabilities. Most of them were not even aware of ODP.

Integrated Community Space 

On 3 July, SG Enable, a government-established agency dedicated to enhancing the lives of persons with disabilities, announced plans for an integrated community space for persons with disabilities.

The space will include an information centre, a career centre offering job placement and support, facilities for courses and on-the-job training, as well as a “mentoring space” for workers with disabilities to mentor students with disabilities.

It is expected to be completed by the second half of 2015.

Transport Concession Scheme

On 6 July, the Ministry of Transport made public transport more affordable for persons with disabilities by introducing the Public Transport Concession Scheme.

Under this scheme, persons with disabilities can enjoy 25 per cent adult fare discount for travel on public transport. They also have the option of buying a monthly pass for $60.

For those who wish to learn more about the concession scheme or wish to apply for the card, please click here.

$30 Million Enabling Lives Initiative

On 26 October, the Singapore government announced a $30 million “Tote Board-Enabling Lives Initiative” aimed at improving the quality of life and well-being of persons with disabilities and their caregivers.

Tote Board will work with SG Enable and National Council of Social Service (NCSS) to deliver this initiative. NCSS will lead the $4 million education drive, while SG Enable will administer the remaining $26 million funding for projects like technology aids and caregiver support.

The money will be available to groups such as voluntary welfare organisations, research institutions and social enterprises.

The initiative will commence on January 2015.

Learn more about the initiative here.

School-To-Work Transition Programme

On 12 November, five Special Education (SPED) schools started a new school-to-work transition programme. The five participating SPED schools are Pathlight School, APSN Delta Senior School, Grace Orchard School, Metta School and Minds Woodlands Gardens School.

Co-developed by the Ministry of Education, MSF and SG Enable, this programme aims to provide greater support for SPED graduates moving on to the workplace.

Under the prototype, SPED schools identify students who have the potential to work and refer them to SG Enable in the final year of school to identify post-school employment or training opportunities. The students will also receive customised job training and continued support from a job coach at their workplace.

Open Door Job Portal


On 22 November, SG Enable introduced a new Open Door Job Portal for persons with disabilities looking for employment and for employers to post jobs. With this new site, job search is made easy for persons with disabilities.

Click here to view the site.

My criticism with this site concerns the types of jobs available. A quick glance over the list will reveal that most are low-skilled jobs such as a waitress/waiter, cleaner, dishwasher and administrative assistant.

While it is heartening to see that employers are willing to hire persons with disabilities, a big step towards reducing stigma to be sure, it is disappointing to know that some of these very same employers have biased assumptions of the capabilities of persons with disabilities.

Granted, a waitress, administrative assistant and cleaner etc. are still jobs that pay, no matter how meager the salary. They provide persons with disabilities a means by which to live their lives independently.

But persons with disabilities should not be restricted to these low-skilled jobs. The Open Door Job Portal should advertise a range of jobs from high-end to low-end ones so that persons with disabilities can choose according to their qualifications and personal preferences, and so have a chance at better utilising their abilities and maximising their potential.

Purple Parade 2014


On 15 November, Singapore held a movement that supports inclusion and celebrates the abilities of persons with disabilities. The Parade featured performances, carnival booths, and raised funds by selling food, beverages, merchandise and handicrafts.

Held at Hong Lim Park, a massive crowd of 5,000 from diverse backgrounds, sectors and professions came decked out in purple. Among them were Government ministers Mr Teo Ser Luck, Ms Sim Ann and Mr Lawrence Wong, and Nominated Member of Parliament (MP) Ms Chia Yong Yong and MP Ms Denise Phua. Veteran local actor Mr Chew Chor Meng was also present for the event.

Government agencies, mainstream schools, corporate volunteer groups, Special Education schools and various voluntary welfare organisations also joined in the celebration as parade contingents. While members of the public showed their support by patronising carnival booths.

Learn more about the event here.

Progressive roll-out of WAB services

For the entire year 2014, SBS Transit has been rolling out new wheelchair-accessible bus (WAB) services. The latest of which was on 3 December when SBS Transit rolled out six new WAB services.

The six services are service number 9, 91, 103, 115, CT8 and CT18. This brings the total number of WAB services to 183, making 89% of all SBS buses wheelchair friendly.

For more information about wheelchair-accessible bus services, please click here.

The continued roll out of WAB services is greatly appreciated, but quality is equally if not more important. DPA has received feedback from our members that the attitude of some of these WAB bus captains is somewhat lacking. Bus captains must receive continuous sensitivity training to provide quality service to persons with disabilities.

New Preschool to integrate Children with and without Disabilities

Redhill pre-school will be special

Image taken from http://news.asiaone.com/

On 2 December, a new preschool in Redhill was announced to be taking in mainstream children and children with special needs. Set up by philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation and voluntary welfare group Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA), this Redhill preschool is the first in Singapore to work on the concept of integrating these two groups of children together.

It will be staffed by qualified degree-holding teachers, on top of an early childhood diploma. The preschool will also employ a speech therapist and an occupational therapist.

The pre-school will take in 75 pupils, with 30 per cent of spaces allocated to children with special needs. It will start with an intake of about 30 pupils, but is expected to reach full enrolment by January 2016.

Home-based care services

On 3 December, MSF launched a two-year pilot scheme for people aged 16 and above with physical or intellectual disability as well as mild autism. The aim of this initiative is to help persons with disabilities remain integrated in the community and to support their caregivers.

Under the scheme, service providers make house calls to provide therapy, personal hygiene care, housekeeping and medication reminder services. The services will be provided by the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) and the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS). And the Government will subside up to 80 per cent of the cost for needy families.

For more information about the scheme, please click here.

This is a well-meaning venture but an inadequate one nonetheless.

According to SG Enable, persons with disabilities who are currently receiving centre-based care services are not eligible for the scheme. This is done to avoid double-funding.

This exemption is completely understandable if home-based services and centre-based services are one in the same, where clients can receive the same kinds of services but at different settings.

But this may not be the case for all. For example, the personal hygiene service provided by the home-based service may not be offered at a day activity centre – a place where the client learn socialising skills by interacting and playing with others. BOTH are necessary and beneficial to the client, so why should they only be allowed access to one?


Singapore has certainly come a long way in enabling the lives of persons with disabilities and making society inclusive and barrier-free.

I applaud the various government agencies and their collaborative partners for their efforts but more can be done. This new year, 2015, will be the time for them to review their pilot programmes and schemes, and incorporate feedback and insights from their clients for fine tuning. I look forward to the development of these initiatives.

What do you think about these schemes, events and projects?


Click to access 30m-job-scheme-to-help-the-disabled-25-Apr-2014-The-Straits-Times.pdf

Click to access ST-Online_3-Jul-2014-SG-Enable-Unveils-Plans-for-Integrated-Community-Space-for-the-Disabled.pdf




Click to access ST-pB02_27-Oct-2014-30m-fund-to-help-people-with-disabilities.pdf



Click to access Sunday-Times-Top-News-p4_6-Jul-2014-Lower-Fares-for-140000-from-Today.pdf










Going Whoa @ WOHA Architects

By Alvan Yap and Marissa Medjeral-Mills

Not-so-usual lift buttons.

Not-so-usual lift buttons.

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

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

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

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

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

All About Richard

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


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

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

Untangling the acronym: About the CRPD

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

The Importance of Being Reasonable..

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

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

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

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

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

… And of Clarification

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

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

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

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

The Grand Tour

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

Seamlessly does it!

Seamlessly does it!

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

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

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

Level floor.

Level floor.

Gentle slope.

Gentle slope.

Grilled surface covered up for wheelchair use.

Grilled surface covered up for wheelchair use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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


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

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

In Case Of Emergency

Specialised device.. find out what it is!

Specialised device.. find out what it is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using An Evacuation Chair

Evacuating a wheelchair user

Evacuating a wheelchair user

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

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

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

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

(Photos and video clip by Alvan Yap.)

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.

…And why VWOs should do the same

Straits Times Forum, 7 May 2013 (print edition)

MS PRISCILLA Poh Beng Hoon makes a pertinent point (“VWOs should hire beneficiaries if they fit the bill”; last Thursday).

Voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and non-profit organisations (NPOs) can consider giving priority to their clients, members and beneficiaries when suitable openings are available in their organisations.

In view of Singapore’s tightening labour supply and the increasing difficulty in finding suitable employees, local companies and organisations should consider dipping into a significant yet often overlooked pool of candidates – people with disabilities.

Despite many of them being qualified and capable, this group tends to be unemployed or underemployed due to discrimination and lack of opportunities in the open job market.

In this, VWOs and NPOs that cater to the disabled can take the lead and show the way. Examples of organisations that tap their clients or members for job openings include the Autism Resource Centre, Singapore Association for the Deaf and Disabled People’s Association.

The benefits are manifold – the organisations fill their vacancies and fulfil their self-help mandate at the same time; beneficiaries and clients are able to embark on a career and gain a source of income. Finally, it also serves as a first step towards their acceptance by and integration into the larger society.

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