Social Inclusion for the Differently Abled — Building a Sustainable Singapore

Why is it that out of a group of 1000 differently abled people, 62% do not feel they are included, accepted, given opportunities to contribute or reach their potential by society? (National Council of Social Service in Singapore) Why does Nazar a 48-year-old who works to clean the supermarket have to be given a job to work outside the supermarket because of the way he looks? (SG enable masterplan) Is our society really this close-minded? Well, some studies do suggest this. One such study, conducted by the Singapore philanthropic house Lien Foundation, in which more than a 1000 people took part, out of which 64% said they believe Singaporeans are willing to share public places but not interact with the special needs community.

Social inclusion is the act of making all groups of people within a society feel valued and important (Collins). Inclusion is not just about letting someone be a part of the group, but rather a part of the conversation. These two set an accepting society, apart from a tolerant one, because inclusion is about interactions and building bonds.

Why is it that even after ratifying a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013, six in 10 people with disabilities do not feel socially included in the Singaporean community? (Janice Tai) Studies by social psychologists have shown that ostracism can reduce a person’s self- esteem, sense of control, and of a meaningful existence. Is that not brutal? It is extremely unjust for a person to be risked into losing fundamental physiological needs because of a developmental or physical delay that they have no control over. They are born human like everyone, and therefore, I believe deserve to be loved and respected just like any other human.

 

Local Perspective

Within Singapore, there are many organisations that are working towards diminishing this issue in society, one of these being the Christian Outreach for the Handicapped (COH). They believe in the philosophy that “each person, including those with disabilities, have a God-given right to be heard; recognised and appreciated as people of inherent worth; respected for the potential they carry.” This organisation was founded by Rev Alice Shea in 1997 when she realised there were not many services available for her daughter who had an intellectual disability. From this is can be inferred that Rev’s love as a mother and her experiences influenced her to act upon this issue. This would in some ways mean that she was majorly influenced by a rational perspective. But another interesting thing about Rev is that she is a Baptist Missionary, a woman also driven by Christianity, and its emphasis on equality. While some believe that rational thinking and religion are not compatible, Rev is living proof that humans are more complicated than a single belief system. In Rev’s case, rationalism and religion equally coexist, where her motherly instincts led her to start COH; her love for God guided her through this journey of working towards social inclusion.

COH as an organisation has carried on these religious values. Although not very explicit in the service they provide, COH is fueled by the will to please the Lord, it could then, possibly be argued that obtaining God’s love is their first purpose, after which comes the empowerment of the disabled community. Are they really doing it for selfish reasons? I believe not, often people who subscribe to religion do so in order to gain a greater purpose in life, and set guidelines that steer them toward making the right decisions. In my opinion, the values of the Christian religion are being used as an effective framework to lead COH in the right direction. Christianity directly affects the organisation’s values, but in no way is it imposed on their beneficiaries; COH is extremely open-minded in that they have no profiling restrictions on their beneficiaries, their services are open to an individual of any background.

This dominant perspective has translated into a plethora of positive implications. Their services are highly based on regular social interactions between people with disabilities and the ‘public’. According to Thomas (his last name was not mentioned) who is part of COH said that these interactions a very much a stepping stone towards a more inclusive society. One of the most loved outings the COH students go for is the coffee shop sessions, that fall under the category of community living skills. Going a hawker coffee shop is an everyday ritual for locals. This type of casual sit at the coffee shop once used to be an intimidating experience for the COH clients; in a lively setting where strangers become friends, these clients were often ignored or excluded from conversations. According to Thomas, this is because of the ‘fear of difference’ the some of the locals had. But with the developing social skills of the COH clients and the regular visits, this attitude towards the differently abled community has changed in this particular coffee shop. As both parties have started to become familiar with each other, they have achieved mutual respect, and this has overridden any initial physical judgment. How amazing is that! Not just that they go so often they are sometimes also offered free coffee!

Not only has an ever so simple activity empowered disabled individuals to learn and help themselves, but also provided them with social confidence and erased stigma within that specific local community. COH organises many such activities for their members, all mostly contributing to empowerment and incorporation. It is evident that COH’s perspective has noticeably affected the lives of their clients and the local community for the better.

 

Global Perspective

The global perspective I will be analysing is that of an Indian disability advocate, called Sanjeev Sachdeva. He played a major role in making tourist destinations in New Delhi such as the Dilli Haat. He too carried a similar perspective to COH, “The issue of disability has more visibility now, but there is still work to be done”. His perspective came about from personal experience and sense and therefore he was someone who was influenced by an Empiricist perspective. Being a travel enthusiast who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy,  Mr. Sanjeev realised that he was unable to visit historical sites or tourist sites due to the lack of infrastructure. For example in Dilli Haat this meant that there were no ramps for wheelchair users, the ticket counters were only devised for a standing person, etc.

In the beginning when first diagnosed with this autoimmune disorder Mr. Sanjeev struggled to come to terms with his condition, just as many of us would if we lost the immediate capacity to do things that we could do so easily before, but after sometime of thinking things through he realised the importance of free will and shaping one’s destiny. Therefore his strong perspective led him to co-found an organisation called, Samarthya in 1996, an organisation through which he brought about the change of accessible infrastructure. His perspective has had many positive implications. After appearing on a famous talk show that addresses sensitive social issues in India Mr. Sanjeev said that the media coverage of the issue increased, this played a big role in increasing awareness and public sensitization. Mr. Sanjeev and his friend Ms. Agarwal who worked on Samarthya together soon started consulting designers on how to make tourist sites, public buildings and transport system disabled-friendly. This shows that designers have started to think of the disabled as potential customers instead of completely disregarding their needs. Samarthya was able to make the 2- km radius of their office completely disabled friendly. Back in 2004, they had conducted 25 access audits across the country to come up with ways to redesign site with eh incorporation of accessible infrastructure, without directly affecting the aesthetics of the site.

As it can be seen through this snippet of Mr. Sanjeev Sachdeva’s experiences, that inclusion starts by raising awareness in the public about the disabled community. In this specific case, the problem was that the architects were being ignorant of the fact that even those who are differently abled like to indulge in activities such as everyone else. But now this is also changing, with the growing media coverage on such issues and growing consideration in the public.

 

What are the causes of this issue?

What is Singapore doing to help?

What needs further development?

Just as in football players tackle their opponent, the cause of their problem, we must do the same when tackling this issue. When solving any issue it is important to target the source of the issue. in this case, the main cause of this problem like many others is the lack of awareness. Lack of awareness leads to misconceptions.

When we make an effort to interact with someone it is often because we think we might share something in common with them. Many times people are too quick to assume that those who are differently abled are not like them in any aspect just based on physical appearance. This type of stereotyping is the main cause of social exclusion. Other times people think it is too much effort to interact or maintain a relationship with a person who is differently abled because they have to sometimes engage them in a different way. Other times people have good intentions and this is what stops them from interacting, as they are too afraid that they might offend the person, or say something wrong. These are the causes the are not only prevalent in Singapore but all over the world. It somewhat stems out form people being lazy and not making an extra effort, it really is quite simple to ask a differently abled person how they might be liked to be treated, for example do they mind you calling them blind? or talking about your disability, these type of communication efforts are the key to any successful relationship and they apply to this case just the same. Sometimes these barriers are created by the family of the differently abled themselves, as they rather not have their child interact with others, and there are usually different reasons for this. Sometimes parents are embarrassed, other times parents are scared for the safety of their child, and do it out of a protective nature.

SG Enable is an agency that is dedicated to enabling and empowering the disabled community; they do so through the enabling masterplan. The enabling masterplan is a blueprint of policies and plans for persons with disabilities. Government agencies and Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) have been working hard towards accomplishing this.

Under one of these comes the accessibility of transport for those who are physically disabled. Singapore has done quite well to make transport accessible, by setting up lifts, ramps, tactile floor tiling, warning light signals in the MRT, and designated area for seating. All this is great but there are still some existing attitudinal barriers when it comes to accessing public transport. Some time commuters and drivers are impatient, and don’t treat people with physical disabilities with enough respect. But this is not all out of ignorance, often abled commuters stand on the tactile flooring without realising that they are possibly creating an obstacle. In this case although the infrastructure has done relatively well, the general public need to be made more aware of the needs of the differently abled around them, because even if the technology is existing the infrastructure is still incomplete without people who are willing to help. If a person on a wheelchair is travelling on their own and need to go up a flight of stairs using a stair lift the first step to access the stair lift is being shifted from the wheelchair to the lift, without a helping hand this stair lift becomes useless to the person on the wheelchair. I believe that inspiring people to help those who are disabled is an important part of improving this solution of accessibility.

Another one of the solutions that are being implemented by SG enable and that have been highly successful are the early intervention programmes for infants and children(EIPIC). These allow differently abled children to have access to a school suited to them. In since 2006 to 2015 there have been 2000 more children enrolled into this programme. I believe this is a highly successful solution to making children feel comfortable in who they are from a young age. Children enrolled in this programme go onto building vocational, communicational and basic everyday skills that will help them grow into individual adults. With this programme social inclusion is somewhat promoted through their process of integrating some of the students who have minor disabilities into mainstream schools. Although not directly contributing to social inclusion these programmes are a starting point as they build a strong basis for the differently abled child in that they learn how to communicate better, and when it comes to social inclusion efforts have to be made from both sides, and here schools are doing their job in teaching kids how to interact. As mentioned earlier some of the causes of this issue of social inclusion rise from families being conservative in sending their differently abled child to school, this could be for different reasons. By making EIPIC a subsidised service the masterplan is taking into account the financial barriers that stop parents from sending their children to school. This is well targeted as low income families are more likely to refrain from sending their child to school.

A programme that complements this one are the subsidised transport Singapore offers to those with disabilities. This means that a disabled person who is enrolled in a course at a school, VWO, or EIPIC who has a low family income, are able to sign up for the use of subsided transport to travel to their destination. In many cases this is an extreme relief to parents who work as they can trust that their child is safely taken to school. This also acts as an encouragement for the parents to enrol their children into schools like Rainbow Center, where differently abled children can develop just like other kids. This type of transportation accessibility gives no other options but to send their child to school. This really empowers the family of the children and the children themselves, to feel that they too have the right to education, and that the environment around them can be molded to their needs, which plays an important aspect in them stepping away from looking at themselves as burdens.

All these three solutions work hand in hand in integrating the differently abled into the Singaporean society, and therefore are making an equally important impact on the issue. They could all be further improved by expanding them out all parts of Singapore, for example currently only 80% of public buses are wheelchair accessible, by making all buses accessible the impact will be more widespread.

I believe that although attitudinal change is part of the the enabling masterplan, they have not been able to make a specific plan on how to bring upon this change. This is a very important aspect, just creating infrastructure is insufficient an effort to integrate the differently abled into the society. Society is made up of people and in order to bring about change the infrastructure of their mind first has to be changed. I think a possible solution to this is, hosting an annual event such as Pink Dot, but for the differently abled. There is already an existing event called the We Are Able! But this is restricted to people who are part of this sector. I think hosting an open event where the disabled community can unite along with other members of the public to celebrate the achievement of individuals and organisations is a great way to make the general public aware of this issue. It can be a sort of convention where people can share the challenges and successes they have experienced. Anecdotes such as these can give individuals and organisations an idea of the specific types of problems differently abled face in society. This is can also serve as a platform to inspire people to devise new solutions such problems.

 

Personal Perspective

Throughout this blog post, I have commented on the different perspectives. I consciously left my personal perspective for the end, in order to eliminate emotional bias, which blog posts tend to have.

When writing this post I realised that all the perspectives that I was outlining had the same stance, all are FOR and working towards social inclusion of people with disabilities, I feared monotony. But as I further analysed each perspective I realised the ‘variety’ lay in the influences and motives. It is amazing how people coming from completely different backgrounds CAN agree on an issue, it is solid proof that it is possible for the Singaporean community to transition into a more inclusive society. I believe including these positive perspectives was necessary because often negative extremes are highlighted in the media, although important to be aware of, it is equally or maybe even more important to showcase the positive work people are doing, as it has the capability to have a greater influence on the reader.

I for one, also stand alongside all the other perspectives in saying that equality is crucial to a peaceful and sustainable society. Differently abled people are the same amount human as any other ‘normal’ human and they deserve, to live just as happy and exciting a life as anyone else. They are capable of success and failure like everyone else is, and should be offered opportunities to develop in all aspects.

I am proud to say that my family is, no doubt, the biggest influence on my perspective. I have been raised in a very accepting and patient domestic setting, and have been influenced by a free will perspective. My parents have helped me realise that I have the power to control my destiny. This has directly translated into me believing that everyone around me has the same power.

I find it extremely upsetting that some use this power they are born with, to diminish others path to happiness. But sometimes there are things that we can not control, and therefore have to slowly make change in these areas.

My uncle was a outstanding example of someone who worked towards accessibility for the disabled and at the same time maintained a respectable position. A charismatic, intelligent, successful and loving man. If you ever met him you would barley notice the wheelchair he sat or, or how his body stay motionless from neck down, rather you would be drawn to his, smile, the biggest asset. Not once was there a day he forgot to wear a smile, it was simply a part of him. To me he was always an uncle first, his abilities were all I would focus on, because there were so many of them!!!

I do understand that, since I was, exposed to interacting with a differently abled person from birth I never questioned his disabilities as they were normal to me. Watching my parents and the rest of my family interacting with him I automatically inherited their mannerisms. As mentioned before sometimes the fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone, stops people from interacting with differently abled people, but i have learnt that the key is to be open with the person and ask them about the terminology they are comfortable with you using. I naturally felt at ease with my uncle, because firstly he was my uncle, but secondly I picked up the sociolect my parents and the rest of the family used, this broken down any barriers of discomfort.

My uncle is Sanjeev Sachdeva, the global perspective I analysed.

My parents volunteering work with Rainbow Centre, a school for the differently abled children in Singapore, has also played a large role in embedding strong values of equal rights and inclusion in me.

My school environment has also had significant influence on my outlook. Being a school which values diversity, they are accepting of all. School has especially helped point me towards the direction of making a change, by provided opportunities to work with organisations like COH. The implications of my perspective have been evident in the services I have taken part in school. I hope working with the COH clients during lunch time has had a positive effect on their life, as it has on mine. I do believe that during these sessions like my parents showed me how to interact with my uncle, I have been able to do the same for my friends, by helping them overcome the initial awkwardness. This has had positive implications on the mindset of my friends, and their view on relationship/ friendships between differently abled people and ‘normal’ people.

 

UWC’s connections

Our school, UWC’s partnership with COH is a crucial one, as it is one that helps students become comfortable with interacting with differently abled community. This is one of the top activities under COH’s programme of taking part in an supporting inclusive events. Both COH and UWC believe in the importance of normalising interactions between children and the disabled community at an early stage, as this is a time during which children are malleable in their thought process. They do this by either organisations visiting each other, and activities that are commonly enjoyed by both parties are planned for. Helps find common ground. Embedding inclusive values in children at an early stage is a lot more easier as children are often more open to new ideas than adults. By connecting it’s students to organisations such as COH, UWC is working positively towards making future generations and therefore society an accepting one. Not only does this open children minds and hearts, but they also then have the power to influence their families beliefs on such issues. But perhaps the most important aspect of this partnership is that it invokes youth leadership, as the students of UWC are often the ones organising the activities that will be conducted during the sessions, this helps build social skills that stick with children for life, leading them to treat almost everyone equally for the rest of their lives. By having these face to face interaction session, UWC and COH are tackling the cause of the problem, by eliminating stigma that either parties have about each other from the beginning. UWC can therefore be labeled as a school who is taking the responsibility to nurture accepting children. I do believe that one of the drawbacks of the arrangement of the partnership at the moment is that they only meet once a week. In a way this reduces the chance of building a deeper relationship with the individuals coming from COH, but I do also understand that the school takes part in many other social causes that also need to be given time.

 

 

Bibliography

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Ho, Olivia. “Tickets on Sale for Singapore’s First Festival for Artistes with Disabilities.” The Straits Times, 10 Jan. 2018, www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/tickets-on-sale-for-singapores-first-festival-for-artistes-with-disabilities.

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“SG Enable.” About Us, www.sgenable.sg/pages/content.aspx?path=%2Fabout-us%2F.

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