ITE-SPD Conference Inclusiveness: From Learners to Earners – Speech by Ms Jessica Tan

Ms Low Yen Ling, Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Trade and Industry & Mayor, South West CDC

Miss Chia Yong Yong, President, SPD

Dr Ang Kiam Wee, Principal, ITE College Central

Students and parents

Ladies and gentlemen


A progressive society is one that is inclusive and allows ANYONE to actively participate. One in seven persons – 1.2 billion persons – around the world have a disability. 70 percent of those disabilities are invisible. In Singapore, about 3 percent of our resident population have some form of disability.

At Microsoft, we believe that diversity enriches our performance, our products and services, the communities where we live and work, and the lives of our employees. We provide an inclusive environment where everyone can do their best work and where we enable people with disabilities to be successful. In fact, this was one of the things that attracted me to Microsoft.

Inclusiveness is at the core of what Microsoft does. When we deliver on our mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more, we need to ensure that no one is left behind.
In this era of the digital economy and of digital transformation throughout our working and social lives, we have the responsibility as digital leaders to ensure that technology contributes to creating a more inclusive community.

We see disability as a strength. There are no limits to what people can achieve when technology reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it. Ensuring technology is for everyone is exactly what a team of my colleagues from Microsoft Accessibility does. We design to connect the 7 billion people on this planet, and to fit each unique person. You may not realise it, but built-in assistive technology for disabilities in vision, hearing, speech, mobility, learning or age-related, are consciously integrated into our products through inclusive design.

As an example, updates to Windows 10 include improvements to Narrator, Microsoft Edge and the Mail app. Mail on Windows 10 has more intuitive navigation, predictable keyboard behaviour and reliability with screen readers. Narrator – a screen reader for the blind – has also improved performance, speed, reliability and usability.

When you make technology accessible to everyone – including seniors, people with disabilities, and youth – you empower them with the opportunities to connect, engage, and contribute more fully to our society and economy.

In Singapore, we do this through long-term collaboration with local charitable organisations such as SPD and SG Enable, who share a common vision of integrating people with disabilities into our society and empowering them to explore the opportunities that will allow them to be the best that they can be.

Through the SPD Infocomm Accessibility Centre, over 2,200 persons with disabilities have been provided IT training to enhance their employability in the last 7 years. In the last two years, SPD has also been providing pre-vocational training and job-specific skills training to over 70 persons and more than 20 of them have found gainful employment.

Among them is Tham Zhi Meng Mervin who enrolled in a five-day job-specific skills training in administration in June 2015, after suffering from a virus infection in 2010 and undergoing multiple brain surgery. Due to his fine performance during the course, the Employment Support Specialist secured him to a job as an operations assistant for a business process outsourcing firm handling digital archiving projects. Mervin has since gone on to even train new hires for his employer.

Ensuring that our youths are presented with the opportunities to realise their full potential by connecting them with greater education, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities has been another key focus for Microsoft. Globally, we do this through the Microsoft YouthSpark programme.

Locally, through our partnership with SPD, we started the Microsoft YouthSpark Scholarship in 2009 to help nurture and develop promising youths in Singapore with disabilities to achieve their full potential. The scholarship also seeks to motivate youths with disabilities to pursue higher level of education in IT, as well as have them serve as role models to encourage other youths with disabilities to strive for their own success.

Today, we will award 4 fine youths with this scholarship. This will mean that 32 scholarships have been awarded to 29 youths with disabilities, with 3 students benefitting from the scholarship programme twice for their diploma and degree education.

In fact, you may even find some of these scholars who have completed their education and gone on to contribute to the community familiar. For those of you who caught this year’s National Day Parade, you would have seen Neoh Yew Kim, our 2012 scholar who was diagnosed with loss of hearing when she was just one-month old, sign the song “Count on Me Singapore”. Today, in addition to school as a first-year student for Diploma in Information Technology at Singapore Polytechnic, she dedicates her time to the polytechnic’s Hearing Impaired (HI) Connect Club and has represented the club in various competitions such as swimming, and track and field.

We are honoured to have been given the privilege to make a difference to the lives of this year’s Microsoft YouthSpark Scholarship recipients. Jian Hao, Raymond, Jun Long and Noah have all displayed tremendous courage, resilience and determination to achieve what they have. We are already proud of them and hope that the scholarship will help them to go further and achieve great things in their lives.

I would like share the journey of Noah Si who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was 4 years old. Despite this, Noah continues to flourish in “mainstream” education, where he offered academic help to weaker students and wrote for the school newsletter as a student councillor in Seng Kang Secondary. With a strong GCE “O” levels, Noah then headed to Temasek Junior College where he joined the infocomm club there. Again, Noah aced his “A” levels and with his strong passion for science and mathematics, he decided to pursue a double degree in Computer Science and Mathematics at NUS. In NUS, Noah completed a research project which involved constructing a device to help paralysed persons read eBooks using head movement.

Noah’s perseverance and willingness to work hard has seen him through many challenges, and his dream is to become a professor and share not only the beauty and fun of mathematics and computer science to future generations, but also inspire them with the story of how he overcame the odds, especially to the autistic community. His message to them is “Be yourself, for everybody else is already taken. Don’t let your autism prevent you from playing a useful role in society.”

As we celebrate their achievements today, I hope that this event will serve as a reminder that we ALL have a part to play in nurturing a fair and inclusive learning and workplace environment. It is towards this goal that Microsoft launched a pilot programme to hire people with autism in April 2015. Since then, we have hired 11 new employees who have autism and is actively seeking new candidates for roles in software engineering, data science, customer service and operations, and for teams like Windows, Xbox and HoloLens. These new colleagues of mine may not be able to pass an initial interview or screen because their social skills might not be 100 percent in line with what is expected in a typical interview. The important question to ask is “But what amazing talent are we missing as a result?” I leave you with this question.

Thank you to our partners at SPD, for their perseverance and commitment to enabling people with disabilities to truly realise their full potential.

Congratulations once again to our scholarship recipients. We look forward to learning more about… and learning from… you.