Ms Denise Phua,
Mayor, Central Singapore Community Development Council
Mr Sim Gim Guan
CEO, National Council of Social Service
Ladies and gentlemen
Good morning. We are delighted to be here today for this We Are Able! Conference. Whether you are a person with disability, a caregiver, a colleague of a person with disability or someone who has been contributing in the disability sector, thank you for taking time to come together to celebrate the everyday heroes among us.
Sometimes, it is useful for us to take a step back and to reflect on the journey that we have taken to this day. I think you will realise that step-by-step, Singapore is slowly, but surely becoming a more inclusive society for persons with disabilities. The direction is clear and there is no turning back. We will keep up the momentum.
We see this in the physical environment around us. Our public transport system and built environment are progressively more wheelchair friendly. While we are not there yet, we will continue to improve. We are also making efforts to design our social and recreational facilities in more inclusive ways.
In August last year for example, I was very glad to launch our inclusive playground at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. This is a day I will never forget. When you look at the broad smiles on the faces of the children on wheelchairs, possibly experiencing a swing and merry-go-round for the first time, that was a truly magical experience. Sometimes, we bring our children to the parks to play, we do take it for granted. But for some of these children, it may be well the very first time playing with those facilities. Yesterday, at the Enabling Village, I saw how by tapping on assistive technology, we can modify simple toys. Children with disabilities used to only watch but were unable to play. By adapting them, our children can operate these simple toys. Again, we can bring the simple joys of childhood to even more of our children.
Of course, who can forget the ASEAN Para Games last year? Many of you would have been there cheering on our athletes. Medals or no medals, it really did not matter. Look at the spirit in the journey leading up to the games, the enthusiasm that everyone brought to bear and the determination. See them fighting their hearts out, flying our flag. It was a tremendously moving experience. It demonstrates to us what is possible. I believe that these initiatives and these activities will have a long lasting impact on how we bring about more inclusivity in Singapore.
Today, there are also more support services for persons with disabilities and their caregivers. We have raised capacity and subsidies for early intervention services for pre-schoolers. For students with special needs, we continue to improve on the education at SPED schools and extend better support in mainstream schools. A few days ago, I had a detailed briefing and meeting with my colleagues from the Education Ministry to discuss this. It is very encouraging to see how they are approaching the whole issue and how we are integrating our efforts across the different Ministries and agencies.
We are also doing more on the employment front. Three months ago, the Prime Minister launched the Enabling Village. Its most important priority is to help persons with disabilities improve their skills and employment prospects.
Clearly, a lot of progress has been made, but we are not there yet. There are still gaps that we acknowledge, and we want to narrow it as far as possible. Much of the progress we have made over the last few years can be attributed to the Enabling Masterplan. This is a blueprint of policies and plans for persons with disabilities. Government agencies and voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) have worked very hard on this. Many of you here have been closely involved in developing or implementing this Masterplan. Thank you all very much for your all your effort, because as you can see, it is not just a ‘talk shop’. It is not just about plans. It is about bringing these plans into reality, to make sure that they are operational, practical and sustainable.
The current plan will be completed at the end of 2016. We must build on its momentum. We will take stock of what we have done well, we will also look at areas where we can still improve. My ministry is now putting together a Steering Committee to start the development of the next Enabling Masterplan. The Committee will study, consult extensively, and recommend how we can bring about even greater impact for the disabled community over the next 5 years.
A Wider Circle of Support
Will the next Enabling Masterplan be as impactful? Will we continue to make progress towards to being a more inclusive society? The answers to these questions rest not just on the recommendations of the Committee or the efforts by VWOs or government agencies. We will make those efforts and steps that need to be taken. We will continue to work hard. But more importantly, for us to be a truly inclusive society where persons with disabilities can participate fully as members of Singapore society, a wider circle of support is needed. When we talk about building a more inclusive society, it does not mean that we are just trying to bring on board those with different abilities, those with special needs. It is about all Singaporeans being on board that same journey. We are the ones who will make other Singaporeans feel that they are very much part of the landscape, along with everyone of us, despite our different abilities, despite our different competencies. Everyone plays a part.
We must support families and caregivers who are walking alongside their loved one. More than a quarter of participants of this event are family members and caregivers. Your role is irreplaceable. But I know that you would also need the support to continue to care for your loved ones and help them live up to their full potential. Some of the persons with disabilities have few or no other family caregivers. Some could have multiple dependents. I know the going is especially stressful for you. So when we develop the next masterplan, an area that we want to place more attention on, is how we can better support you and other caregivers.
To widen the circle of support in the next phase of our journey, we will also need businesses to play an even more active role, particularly in the areas of employment and delivery of services. In fact on this topic itself, yesterday, at the Enabling Village, we had the inaugural Inclusive Business Forum where we invited many businesses to share with us their experiences of what it was like for them to begin to be more inclusive when they hired individuals with disabilities. One of the reflection shared was that as a result of employing persons with disabilities, the difference made was not about what, and how we contributed to those with disabilities. It was actually the impact of how, by employing persons with disabilities, it softened the culture of the company and changed people. They saw that when you have Singaporeans with disabilities among them, their fellow workers began to look out for them. You are actually in the process of building a more caring and compassionate society. It was ground-up. For example during lunchtime, they saw colleagues organising themselves to bring in lunch for their colleagues, who perhaps, from a mobility perspective, found it difficult to go out for lunch. That was happening across the board. That was the transformative effect they saw within the company. You can imagine the kind of transformative effect it this may have on our society.
Hence, it is not just about helping those who need help. It is in the process of helping that we are going to be transformed as a people. That is the exciting part. We know that in building a better Singapore and a better future, a lot of it is about having these values being put into action -- be a bit more selfless, be compassionate, looking out for others. That is why I think widening that circle of support is going to make a tremendous impact, not just for those with special and different abilities, but it is going to make a tremendous impact on our society itself.
Over the last few months, I have met several progressive employers who are welcoming to workers with disabilities, including those who are operating at the Enabling Village. Just last month, I launched the POSB Talking ATMs, or ATMS that are friendly to visually impaired persons. It is about moving all the way down to very simple devices or things that we take for granted in our everyday lives, to make it as simple as possible, as convenient as possible for all Singaporeans.
Certainly, for the Government, we need to play a more active part as well. There are roles, jobs, and responsibilities where Singaporeans with different abilities can contribute in very meaningful ways. From our Ministry’s perspective, working with the government and various agencies, we want to endeavor to identify those areas and to bring in more Singaporeans so we can see how they can better contribute. This is also something that we can take the lead to see what we can do on that front.
Government agencies will also adopt a more inclusive approach to our policies and programmes. Under the next Enabling Masterplan, we should make sure that national initiatives like SkillsFuture, is not just a SkillsFuture for able-bodied Singaporeans, but for all Singaporeans, even those with different abilities. We should be open to ideas that help them tap on such funding, support and initiatives. Yesterday, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam talked about the SkillsFuture Awards, so the narrative for SkillsFuture must include all Singaporeans. When we talk about SmartNation, SmartNation must be for all of us and we know that technology has a significant impact for Singaporeans with disabilities. We need to make sure that when we open up the ideas, funding is available, and that we fully support the initiatives that are brought to bear fruit on this front. After all, skills development and technology adoption can be effective enablers that help persons with disabilities realise their potential and to allow them to lead as normal a life as possible, and to contribute back to society in the best of their abilities. In the same vein, I will encourage the Committee to tap on the ongoing national SG Future series of engagement, to use it as a platform to gather feedback and ideas for the next Masterplan.
To build a more inclusive society, we need more than infrastructure, policies and services. But as I mentioned earlier, with the wider circle of support, we will need wider public understanding, empathy and support. Let me cite an example. Earlier, I mentioned that we are progressively improving our public transport system to become more accessible. We have also provided more transport support for persons with disabilities in the last two years. These will not be impactful unless fellow commuters are also understanding and gracious. It could be something as simple as being patient when a wheelchair user is boarding a bus, or giving way to him at the lift of a MRT station, or giving up a wheelchair friendly space to him on the bus or MRT. Likewise, while we can have accessible car park lots for persons with disabilities who need to commute by car, these lots will never be put to their intended use if able bodied drivers continue to park in these lots, simply because they thought it is more convenient for them to use a parking lot that is nearer to wherever they are going to. We see these happening in society. We see a lot of positive stories and to be fair, I think by and large, Singaporeans are caring and compassionate. But there are enough negative stories that remind us to be vigilant, to remind us to take that little extra step to be conscious…and that goes a very long way.
In many ways, prevailing mental models and attitudes can perhaps be greater barriers to persons with disabilities than the physical, intellectual, or social barriers they face as a result of their condition. That is why, I am happy to see efforts to bring about greater awareness about disabilities. I would like to commend those who are working on public education and other efforts to bring about changes in wider attitudes and perceptions. This is an effort that must be ongoing, because to build a truly inclusive society, it includes all of us.
Ladies and gentlemen, all of you here are already in our existing circle of support for persons with disabilities. Thank you very much for the roles that you play. You have contributed not just in terms of your very direct role itself, but your inputs, your perspectives, have shaped the space we live in our society. I do urge you to continue to push us, to continue to come forward with ideas and suggestions to see how far we could go. I do ask all of you to also begin to spread your influences. You have your own social network, all of you are influencers in your own right. Bring to bear your influence.
Over the next few years and in the next Enabling Masterplan, we will need to build an even wider circle of support – where families and caregivers are also supported; and where businesses, government and VWOs, and the wider public all play their role. On top of that, supportive infrastructure, services and programmes, will have to continue to be put in place. We will also have more inclusive mental models and attitudes. I think when that begins to happen, we can have full confidence that we can become that truly inclusive society that we talked about and aspire to. One where persons with disabilities are empowered and recognised, and given the full opportunity to become integral and contributing members of society in their own way.
Thank you very much once again for all your wonderful efforts and I urge you to continue on this meaningful journey.