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Singapore’s recovery from the pandemic presents untapped opportunities for disability inclusion

Last month, Parliament passed Budget 2022, which was entitled “Charting our new way forward” to underscore how Singapore aims to strengthen its social compact as it recovers from the pandemic.

Singapore’s recovery from the pandemic presents untapped opportunities for disability inclusion

The author said that while schemes such as the WIS scheme are important, it is also critical to ensure that such workplace modifications are more the norm than the exception.

Last month, Parliament passed Budget 2022, which was entitled “Charting our new way forward” to underscore how Singapore aims to strengthen its social compact as it recovers from the pandemic.

Persons with disabilities have been hit hard by Covid-19. Many persons with disabilities have been disproportionately affected financially as sectors that bore the brunt of the pandemic and witnessed many lay-offs, such as food and beverage, hospitality, and others, were sectors where many working people with disabilities are concentrated. 

Additionally, while safe entry checkpoints and the frequent opening and closing of building entrances were important for public health measures, much of the rollout and set-up of such measures did not take accessibility into consideration posing new accessibility barriers for many persons with disabilities.

While Budget 2022 contains a few important disability-specific measures for the disability community, more can be done to ensure a “whole-of-government” approach to mainstream disability inclusion into these and other policy measures in pursuit of a “way forward”.

First, the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) welcomes the provision that persons with disabilities will continue to qualify for the highest payout level under the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme regardless of age and that the Government will be lowering the eligibility age from 35 to 30. 

This is important as schemes such as the WIS increase the purchasing power of disabled people many of whom, as mentioned, have been hit hard by the pandemic. 

However, from our research, one main factor that leads to persons with disabilities being unemployed or underemployed leading to lower income attainment is that many employers are still unwilling to provide reasonable accommodations or workplace modifications. 

This includes installing ramps, incorporating assistive technologies in the workplace, and so on. 

As a result, many persons with disabilities end up having to resign from their jobs or face limited employment options one main reason as to why persons with disabilities are concentrated in the afore-mentioned sectors. 

While schemes such as the WIS scheme are important, it is also critical to ensure that such workplace modifications are more the norm than the exception. 

There are schemes to aid employers in financing such accommodations and modifications such as the Open Door Programme (ODP) but many employers are still either unaware of such schemes or, as we find most of the time, unwilling to go through the process of adopting such assistance. 

This underscores the need to combine investments in such programmes with the codification of new policies and laws to ensure the proper implementation of such programmes. 

From our research, the unwillingness of many employers to use programmes such as ODP stems from inaccurate biases about hiring disabled people. 

We recommend that the current efforts by the Government to codify workplace anti-discrimination legislation as announced last August take into consideration the various barriers we have outlined in our “Discrimination in the workplace” study. 

Secondly, the Government’s announcement of a new school for students aged seven to 18 with multiple disabilities in the western part of Singapore is an overall positive announcement for families who require such support for their children. 

This is a needed investment as currently there are few such options in the west. Such a school also brings new opportunities to implement new programmes. 

For example, currently, the existing Sped (special education) schools do not offer enrolment to study past the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to non-autistic students leaving many such families to rely on the limited options in mainstream schools for such students. 

This is an issue some parents have raised, as many such students can study in mainstream curriculum if the class sizes are smaller and the classroom is inclusive. 

The Ministry of Education (MOE) can look to invest in expanding such small class size capabilities and environments in mainstream schools an important investment that will not only create more options but also assist integration between students with and without disabilities.     

In addition, there are other more general aspects of the Budget where disability-inclusive provisions can be included in its implementation.

For example, there is a large focus in Budget 2022 on increasing digital capabilities within Singapore. 

These include the S$200 million investments in greater digital and automated solutions for businesses and workers, and the S$600 million set aside to expand the range of available solutions under the Productive Solutions Grant (PSG) to push for greater innovation of productivity solutions by small- and medium-sized enterprises over the next four years. 

While such investments are important, it is worth noting that a digital divide often exists between persons with disabilities and persons without disabilities as often new technologies and digital solutions are not designed with accessibility from the get-go. 

We thus recommend that disability-inclusive and accessibility criteria will be built into such schemes to ensure that persons with disabilities in or entering the workforce can take advantage of such solutions on the same level as persons without disabilities. 

Similarly, there is a significant focus in Budget 2022 on investments in training and skills development – whether it be the expansion of the Polytechnic Foundation Programme or the new SkillsFuture Career transition programme to train mid-career individuals. 

Similar to the support for digital solutions, we recommend that the implementation of such investments will be inclusive and that such learning platforms whether online or otherwise will be equipped with accessibility features from the start.

Furthermore, the Budget also sets aside funds for the development of physical infrastructure. These include investments in 60km of transit priority corridors which will integrate dedicated bus lanes, cycling trunk routes and pedestrian paths to be built by 2030. 

As this is a significant and noteworthy investment that will affect substantial portions of our city-state, it will be important that part of the budgetary allocations for this project be reserved to form an accessibility team. 

It can not only oversee the accessibility of such corridors, but ensure that there are minimal to no accessibility barriers that are formed during the construction of such developments of the type that construction projects usually pose.  

As noted, persons with disabilities have been hit hard by this pandemic whether it be with new or compounded economic or accessibility barriers. 

Therefore, as Budget 2022 seeks to chart a new way forward as Singapore looks to recover from the pandemic, we hope that such recommendations will consider new solutions and capabilities to integrate disability inclusion and accessibility from the outset.

We at the DPA would welcome working with Members of Parliament on such suggestions and others as the Government seeks to implement the various measures in Budget 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Richard Chien-Ming Kuppusamy is President of the Disabled People’s Association.

Related topics

disability inclusive budget

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