Your Excellency, Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, Singapore Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
Your Excellency, Ambassador Michael Pulch, EU Ambassador to Singapore
Ambassadors of European Union Member States to Singapore
Thank you Thierry for your kind introduction. It is an honour to commemorate Human Rights Day with all of you.
Allow me to begin with a brief introduction of the Society for the Physically Disabled, known to many in Singapore as SPD in short. We are a not-for-profit, Singapore voluntary welfare organisation. SPD was set up in 1964 to provide sheltered employment for persons with disabilities that they might become self-reliant and financially independent. In the last 49 years, our range of services expanded to include rehabilitation, education, early intervention, assistive technology, IT training, vocational training and employment, to mention a few. SPD now serves close to 4,600 people with disabilities, helping them to integrate into mainstream society.
SPD seeks an inclusive society: a society which recognises the inherent dignity and worth of each individual, one which acknowledges that we are each born with differing abilities and differing limitations, a society which nurtures ability through the reasonable accommodation or mitigation of limitations, and where persons with disabilities contribute to the overall well-being and diversity of the society. For several years, our tagline was “A part, not apart”. Whilst that remains our vision, our tagline in the last couple of years has been “Breaking Barriers, Unlocking Potentials”.
Personally, I don’t like the description “persons with disabilities” but I confess I have not found an apt description. Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) does provide a broader perspective, however.
Under UNCRPD, impairment per se is not a disability. An impairment becomes a disability if in interaction with certain barriers, full and effective participation in society by that person on an equal basis with others may be hindered.
Indeed, that, in our view, is the crux of the matter and the challenge. It is reasonably possible to identify the impairment and work (to the extent possible) towards rehabilitation, identify the barriers and map the interaction to the observed outcome. The challenge is how to neuter or mitigate the barriers and/or manage the impairment-barrier interaction to achieve the outcome of full and effective participation in society by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.
This interactive, and indeed very active, environment being society itself, I would submit that any desired outcome may only be achieved if there exists a high degree of partnership between stakeholders: the State, persons with disabilities, voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs), and the community at large comprising corporates and individuals.
For this reason, SPD does not practice rights-focused advocacy. I submit that rights should not be viewed in isolation, but as bundled with obligations, or, at least, reciprocity. A kind of quid pro quo, if you like. Or, perhaps, at a higher level, the Golden Rule: if I wish to be accorded respect for my inherent worth as an individual, then I have an obligation to accord the same to my neighbor. Maybe, an even higher level – If I want to be included in my community, I should be prepared to contribute to its well-being.
An aggressive pursuit of rights in our society is likely to result in the alienation of the very people we seek to protect. Viewed and practiced instead as a partnership with our stakeholders, we seek not to enforce but to engage. In our advocacy, we seek mindshare and heart-share.
I was the NGO member of the Singapore Government’s delegation to the UN ESCAP Meeting in Incheon in November 2012 where Singapore signed the UNCRPD. Both its signing and subsequent ratification in August this year are momentous events signaling the Singapore Government’s continued commitment to do more for persons with disabilities in Singapore.
The Singapore Government has come a long way. The shift in the mindset of the Government paves the way for more to be done. But first, we need to change the mindset of society at large and of persons with disabilities. Physical, psychological and social barriers must be overcome.
To do so, society and persons with disabilities need to recognise that each and every one of us, persons with disabilities as much as non-persons with disabilities, has the potential to grow, has a part to play in society and can enrich the lives of others. The partnership of society and persons with disabilities should nurture abilities and accommodate the limitations of persons with disabilities as much as of non-persons with disabilities. It cannot be achieved except by the collective efforts of all stakeholders.
Take physical barriers, for example. Singapore has progressed in physical infrastructure, shaped by nation building policies that recognise and take into account the rights of persons with disabilities. Most of Singapore’s primary and secondary schools are equipped with basic access facilities. MOE is in the process of retrofitting more of our schools with facilities to provide fuller access for students with physical disabilities. These were made possible by the partnership of State, and VWOs and is still work in progress.
More must be done. For instance, our public warning system requires review. We understand the Singapore Civil Defence is taking progressive steps to ensure an inclusive and suitable means of communication to persons with disabilities during emergencies. More proactive measures catering to differing disability constraints in different physical environments should also be taken.
Technology empowers persons with disabilities, allows them to work better, encourages social interactions and improves their quality of life. In terms of ICT accessibility, as Singapore continues to wire up, SPD will continue to leverage on Singapore’s ICT infrastructure to offer basic to advanced IT training courses for persons with disabilities, provide advice, consultation and training on assistive technology devices as well as infocomm technology training across disability types and facilitate apprenticeships to enhance employment opportunities of persons with disabilities.
While Government subsidies are available for the purchase, replacement, upgrade or repair of AT devices and accessories, more should be done at the macro-level to harness technology as an enabler for persons with disabilities in Singapore.
At SPD, we place strong emphasis on mainstream education and the training of people with disabilities. We provide, in partnership with corporates, education grants to students with disabilities. We also provide pre- and post-admission support, working with the students with disabilities and willing educators to smoothen the induction of the students into mainstream schools.
We believe that education helps level the playing field in employment. I use “helps” because we still have some way to go in employment actualisation.
In addition, with inclusive mainstream schooling, the integration process can start early. As students with disabilities and without disabilities grow and learn together, they learn from young to be a community of persons with different abilities and limitations, a good start for their mindshare and heartshare.
One current challenge is in the transition to institutions of higher learning. Students with disabilities have the option of declaring their disabilities to the Office of Student Affairs upon admission for learning support. There remains a pressing need for MOE and institutions of higher learning to work more closely with each other to build expertise in the institutions, so that the level of support for students with disabilities can be raised substantially.
Not an encouraging number.
Employment is a matter of dignity for persons with disabilities and a means to break out of the charity trap. From a broader perspective, it affords the opportunity to contribute to the economy and the well-being of society.
Employers are becoming more receptive to hiring persons with disabilities, but lack expertise in the appropriate accommodation for employees with disabilities to be effective in their workplace.
The fact is, employers don’t have to do it alone. SPD offers accommodation and job redesign consultancy services for employers, pre-employment training for job seekers with disabilities as well as up to six months of post-employment support.
Employers can also tap on Government schemes such as the Open Door Fund, the Special Employment Credit and the services of SG Enable.
In conclusion, taking reference from the policies and schemes that the Government has instituted and the progress that we have made in the last few years, I am confident that in time, with the partnership between stakeholders, Singapore can become a country where everyone has equal rights and opportunities as a citizen regardless of his/her abilities or limitations.