As our society progresses to become more inclusive and caring, there is still much more to be done to uplift those living under disadvantaged circumstances among us. Our board advisor Ms Chia Yong Yong pens her reflection in this article first published in The Straits Times on 12 Dec 2021.
Mum, who is in her 80s, showed me the YouTube video – watch this, she said. Inwardly, I groaned: Mum was showing me independent people battling the odds.
But what I was seeing were people with severe disabilities, living alone, in unhygienic and inaccessible habitation, crawling or bottom-shuffling in their daily activities.
Born with muscular atrophy, my limbs grew weaker till I became reliant on a wheelchair.
I went to mainstream school, became a lawyer, served in the social service sector, represented SPD, which is a charity serving people with disabilities and Singapore at regional and international disability fora, and served two terms as a Nominated Member of Parliament.
Yet, I dare not live under the conditions featured in YouTube videos.
Life was hard for the poor and people with disabilities (PWDs) in the 1960s through to the 1980s.
My family was both: My low-income parents were raising three kids, two with disabilities.
Stoically, my parents soldiered on. We did not expect anyone to look after us, definitely not the Government. Not when our country was fighting for survival.
Housing was often overcrowded, unhygienic and inaccessible. In the 1960s, more than 20 of us lived in grandmother’s (inaccessible) kampung house, sharing one (inaccessible) bathroom and one (inaccessible) latrine. Dare I imagine crawling on the rough cement floor and mud patches, or over drains and kerbs, using the latrine, taking a shower.
Rainy days posed even more challenges. The kindergarten was on stilts with pigs and fowls beneath the floorboards. When it rained, we waded through floating excreta and navigated overflowing trenches.
In lower primary school, we walked to school barefooted to keep our socks and shoes dry, crossing wooden planks over trenches, sometimes obscured by muddy waters.
School infrastructure was not accessible, but accommodation and support from educators and schoolmates saw me complete my education. Growing up was not always easy, though. A schoolmate with an intellectual disability and cleft palate, and my sister, who has the same disability as mine, were sometimes bullied.
When in extreme financial hardship as a student, I received financial assistance from school, church, NTUC Comfort and SPD. On graduation, I was one of the last in my class to obtain employment.
Public transport was almost impossible. My father became a taxi driver to fetch me and my sister to medical appointments, school and subsequently, work. Mum took on various manual jobs to supplement family income.
Systems and staff at public hospitals were rigid. Mum had to fight registration and pharmacy clerks to get a consultation (when my skin allergies flared up) and for medication refills.
More assistance and care
As I reflect, I marvel at how we managed those difficult years, and how Singapore has grown for the better.
Assistance then was organic, sporadic and providential. If it took a village to raise a child back then, it would now take a whole country.
The complexities and demands of our world require support for the socio-economically disadvantaged to be systemic, coordinated and owned by everyone in our country.
Following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2004 vision of an inclusive society for PWDs, deliberate and systematic policy change has dramatically altered the landscape for PWDs.
The Enabling Masterplans developed through 3P collaboration (public, private and people sectors) set national roadmaps to support PWDs by way of early detection, education, employment, health, assistive technology, and infrastructure, among others. Our first Enabling Masterplan was launched in 2007, and development of the fourth Enabling Masterplan 2022 -2030 is under way.
Housing and buildings are now generally accessible with ramps and lifts. There are substantial grants for owners of pre-1990 buildings to include accessibility and family-friendly features.
I do not fret over transport anymore. I take buses and trains, and my experience here is much better than in many other developed countries.
I like the Land Transport Authority’s “May I have a seat please” card and lanyard identifier, as it is a lot better than having to explain one’s condition for a seat. Perhaps we should have a “Please help me get the lift” beeper for those of us who have trouble getting into one – I have had people waving me away frequently enough.
Healthcare is easily accessible and affordable, and even if subsidised, is of very high standards. Staff at restructured hospitals receive training to proactively assist patients to navigate facilities and alert relevant healthcare workers to patients’ needs. Now, I go to the doctors on my own.
Upstream, with greater 3P collaboration, a wide range of early intervention programmes and services benefits about 4,500 children each year. Such programmes range from subsidised developmental and therapy services, to support in mainstream schools or special education schools.
However, employment continues to present challenges. Schemes such as the Enabling Employment Credit and Open Door Programme (ODP) support employers in hiring, training and integrating employees with disabilities into the workforce. Under the ODP, more than 3,000 PWDs were placed in jobs between 2014 and last year.
Yet, job redesign and employment retention remain major pieces requiring greater buy-in and collaboration from stakeholders. By working towards more openness and innovation, employment can be disability-neutral.
Getting access to tech
Technology, who can live without it? Yet many are forced to. Digital inclusion and assistive technology are critical to the quality of life of PWDs and our ability to serve.
Be it in daily living activities, learning, socialising, employment, safety and security, digital inclusion and assistive technology enable, empower, enrich, and a lot more.
Why, I would otherwise not have been able to write this piece, nor zip around on my motorised wheelchair, and still be connected to family, friends and the world.
As we marked International Day of Persons With Disabilities on Dec 3, I reflected on how, despite much improvement, there is still much more to be done. Each of us shares the responsibility to build a better future.
Let that be our social compact. Our commitment that come what may, we are here for one another. That disregarding disturbing voices, we will stretch our hands to one another. That be it the Government, organisations, neighbours or strangers, we will work together to uplift the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our midst.
By social compact, we commit ourselves to building a country that our children and grandchildren can proudly call home, and which after we are gone, they can proudly build better for their children and grandchildren.
Our social compact, of which each of us is a part, will give us the courage and hope to live and flourish.
Chia Yong Yong is a lawyer, former Nominated Member of Parliament and social service advocate. She is adviser to the board of management of SPD and a board member of SG Enable.