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Including those with special needs in our Singapore story

In a rapidly disruptive age such as now, people with special needs are clearly at risk of being left behind. It is in this volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous setting, that more intentional and visible strategies must surface so that the vulnerable amongst us can find a place. There is more that we, as a society, can do.

The Art Faculty by Pathlight at the  Enabling Village. TODAY file photo

The Art Faculty by Pathlight at the Enabling Village. TODAY file photo

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In a rapidly disruptive age such as now, people with special needs are clearly at risk of being left behind.

It is in this VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous) setting, that more intentional and visible strategies must surface so that the vulnerable amongst us can find a place.

There is more that we, as a society, can do. Let me elaborate.

Thanks to the intervention of Government and many helping hands, the lives of many young people with special needs have transformed for the better.

Since 2007, the Government has made public three Enabling Masterplans. These are the roadmaps for Singapore to build a more inclusive society where persons with disabilities or special needs are empowered and enabled to realise their true potential.

The latest five-year Enabling Masterplan which will see us through 2021 incorporates the inputs of close to 500 stakeholders.

The plan highlights the pivotal needs and strategies to address gaps in each major milestone of the lives of persons with special needs in our country.

It has been almost 2 years now since the current Enabling Masterplan has been published.

An inter-government-agency led by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) had been set up to see through its implementation.

To be sure, improving the landscape for disability cannot be the job of Government alone. Much resources, mindset changes and action plans have to come from the public and businesses.

Hence, it is not enough to only engage citizens and stakeholders during the writing of a masterplan.

Rapid changes and new developments can happen during its five-year span and the plan needs constant updates and reviews.

Targets - both basic and stretched - must be set for all and there is a need to close monitor the implementation of the plan and report the progress to all stakeholders.

Those serving in the special-needs sector need to play their part too.

I have been encouraging various disability groups to conduct studies and develop mini Enabling Plans so that the needs and gaps in their specific groups can be more accurately identified and addressed.

The rest of society can then chip in to support these plans and the Government can help by addressing gaps.

For instance, up till now, there is no consolidated repository of skills training resources for students with special needs.

Such a one-stop information resource portal would equip educators and caregivers to better prepare the students for life; without the need to develop or curate content from scratch by individual users.

Some members from the deaf community have also identified a serious need for their young to be included in pre-school settings where all children can learn to sign.

This will better prepare them for the deaf-inclusive mainstream primary schools that are already in place.

Yet another important gap that has been identified and addressed in the recent 2018 MSF Committee of Supply debate – caring for those who care for the disabled.

The best way to quell the anxiety of family caregivers, of course, has to be the availability of good care services for their loved ones. However, caregivers themselves too need to care for themselves to continue their journey.

Beyond the MSF’s plan to set up a caregivers’ hub at SG Enable, there is a place for a pervasive hub-and-spoke model so that the needed caregiver support is extended to all parts of Singapore.

Can there be dedicated SG Enable centres much like the e2i and SME centres which are currently co-locating with key Social Service Offices or the Community Development Councils?

Can there be greater assurance for the long term sustainability of test and trialled pilot programmes such as the Eden social club that provides much relief to caregivers of very severely autistic adults?



One big gap in the adult space is insufficient work opportunities for those who are moderately disabled and are thus not suitable for open employment. Many of them, however, can take on simple manual work, if only there are such jobs.

However, in this VUCA world, we have been constantly reminded of the onslaught of mega fully-automated factories of the future, with no human being in sight. We are told that any job tasks that can be repeated will be invariably replaced by machines.

Is there a space, a small one albeit, for successful businesses to purposefully reserve simple manual jobs to accommodate those who would otherwise be doomed to spend their days at home or in a costly day activity centre?

I recently came across a documentary of what was called “the happiest factory in Taiwan”. Cosmetics firm, Loreal Taiwan, made a strategic decision to not automate a segment of its packaging operations and created a workplace for tens of adults with special needs.

Loreal is reported to have set an aspirational goal of creating 100,000 jobs for the vulnerable by the year 2020. It is one of many companies I know which has moved from success to significance.

Indeed, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?



Finally, I would like to repeat my call to ask all government agencies to ensure that their plans to include the special-needs community in their primary policy planning. This is especially for anything to do with our future - our future economy, education, smart nation, healthcare, transport, housing and all other essential services. We do not want to go back to the dark ages, more than a decade ago, when students from special schools were forgotten and left out in the distribution of anti-SARS kits during the outbreak.

From the COS announcements that I have listened to carefully this year, I believe that inclusion of the special needs community is not yet automatic in policy framing. But there are indeed many opportunities to ensure their more visible inclusion in manpower, training, digital equity, education and the like.

I have worked with many public servants to know that many of them are supportive of the cause. But it is not yet a systemic habit.

Ensuring persons, young and old, with special needs should always be included automatically in the checklist in all national policy formulations.

Let all of us play a role to ensure that people with special needs are elevated from being footnotes or after-thoughts in Our Singapore Story.



Denise Phua is President, Autism Resource Centre and a Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC. She was also a member of the Committee for Enabling MasterPlan.

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