When organisations representing people with disabilities in Singapore are not inclusive
Last year, I, together with a group of PWDs and our friends set out to find out the sentiments through a small dipstick survey. Among the 27 respondents, 25 reported feeling excluded from community life, 22 said that they have not found employment in an appropriate capacity, and 24 reported felt discriminated against as a direct result of their disability.
Recently a spotlight has been shone on the dismal employment rate of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Singapore.
The estimated 95 per cent unemployment rate of PWDs is many times over the 2 per cent unemployment rate of the general population. However, the bigger issue is whether the disabled has a place in our economy, schools and community.
To promote inclusivity, we need to take a closer look at the reality on the ground without sugarcoating it.
The Singapore Government has done so much in this area over the past 10 to 15 years.
Its commitment to protect the interests of PWDs is underscored by the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013.
Other measures include making our public transport accessible, encouraging inclusive employment, extending the compulsory education act and drawing up Enabling Masterplans.
Yet many of us who are PWDs still feel excluded and discriminated against.
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Dr Dawn-Joy Leong, who is autistic and has a PhD in autism and art, tells me she finds it extremely challenging to be taken seriously about autism in a professional capacity here despite her experience. This is in stark contrast to Australia where she was actively practising previously.
Last year, I, together with a group of PWDs and our friends set out to find out the sentiments through a small dipstick survey.
Among the 27 respondents, 25 reported feeling excluded from community life, 22 said that they have not found employment in an appropriate capacity, and 24 reported felt discriminated against as a direct result of their disability.
Although this survey is not comprehensive and scientific given our limited resources, it nonetheless gives a useful peek into the issue.
Now, why do PWDs feel left out despite what the Government has done in recent years?
Some critics may even think that the disabled are ungrateful and should not ask for special treatment.
But to understand how PWDs feel, a good place to start is to look at the organisations that serve them and the representation of PWDs on their boards or management councils.
None of the 10 management committee members at the Autism Resource Centre is known to be autistic.
At SG Enable, a government-linked agency “dedicated to enabling the disabled”, only two out of its 15 board members are disabled.
It is six out of 15 at the Singapore Association for the Deaf, seven out of 13 at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, and zero out of six at Guide Dogs Singapore.
These boards and management councils posit that they know their clients' needs and promote the interests of the PWDs under their charge.
But how does one logically deduce that they can provide strategic guidance and appropriate solutions without robust involvement from the disabled constituents they represent?
To be sure, some of these board or management council members may be family members or even parents of PWDs.
But surely, PWDs can speak up for themselves and do not need their family members to do so for them.
What PWDs hope for is a voice of our own.
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“Nothing about us without us” has been a slogan adopted by many disability advocates around the world.
Our voices are important in matters concerning us such as programmes, services and policies about us.
Alvan Yap, a deaf freelance editor and writer puts it best: “‘Nothing about us without us' says something very damning — it means for too long and as the norm, PWDs do not get their voices heard, nor have any say in matters which directly affect them”.
PWDs have a vested interest in our well-being and like everyone else, want to achieve independence.
As a blind person, I can say that the services provided here for the blind are less than desired. There are over 60,000 people with significant vision loss, yet, sadly there are so few who are independent.
Yes, we are often invited to attend fund-raisers, and asked to greet visitors to our association or perform for them. But often we remain unpaid or are paid a tiny amount for these tokenistic roles, and made to believe that we should feel privileged for these opportunities.
This is also why it is not surprising that PWDs are generally reluctant to go directly to the board members or senior management team to provide feedback or raise concerns.
The situation is made worse by some charities which view PWDs as objects of pity and promote them as such at fund-raising exercises.
This antiquated attitude towards PWDs only serves to “handicap” them.
Victor Zhuang, a PHD candidate in Disability and Human Development suggests “we need to be careful over who claims to speak for PWDs, and we also need to evaluate the means in which we understand what 'speaking' means”.
Representation does not mean tokenism. We need good and competent PWDs to lead in our boards, not just the first disabled person we come across. We need to give due respect to the needs of each specific disability, otherwise we risk making things worse.
Imagine the deaf leading the blind. The blind leading the autistic. The autistic leading the physically disabled.
Before we can take a leap into genuine inclusivity, one small step we can take to empower our fellow countrymen and women with disabilities is by according them the right to participate in matters concerning disability and across all disability platforms.
A good example is the Disabled Peoples Association, which has 70 per cent disabled representation on its management board.
Its constitution says a maximum of three out of its 10 board members can be persons without disabilities. But they have to be an advocate for or parents of PWDs.
Perhaps it is time other bodies helping PWDs set up similar quotas.
To help PWDs help themselves, stand alongside them, not above them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Cassandra Chiu is a psychotherapist, lecturer, and an advocate for persons with disabilities. This piece is adapted from her creative non-fiction book, A Place for Us, on her experiences as a person with visual impairment.