Thank you for taking time to come here this morning. It’s very good to see all of you here.
As you all know, technology plays a very important part in all our lives, not just for the disabled, but every one of us. We use it every day, but for those with disabilities technology can make a very real difference to make their everyday tasks and activities a lot easier, things that many of us take for granted.
For example, Dickson, who is visually impaired, was showing me how he reads via the computer where it reads out the text very quickly – he’s actually surfing and searching a lot faster than I can! This has transformed his life. The different forms of technology and the way it’s being applied, has really made a big difference to individuals, to enable them to live independently and provide for themselves. Technology allows this to happen.
How do we best help persons with disabilities in terms of bringing in different types of technology? How do we apply it in a practical way in schools, work places and homes, so that they can be very much a part of what we do, and part of daily life? When we talk about being an inclusive society, it is about allowing different Singaporeans to be with us in all the things that we do, as far as possible.
Over the years, we have helped persons with disabilities to make use of Assistive Technology or AT, and infocomms technology. SPD has been a VWO pioneer in this front, and I’d like to thank you for all your efforts in initiating this right from the onset, and then as a partnership with different agencies, to where we are today.
SPD has provided assessment, referral and financial support to persons with disabilities and their caregivers. The Government will also continue to play a very important role to extend support. MOE funds AT devices and support services for students with special needs. MSF provides the Assistive Technology Fund to help defray the cost of purchasing or repairing assistive devices, and we’ve expanded that recently.
Immense Potential to Do More
We know that technology is changing very rapidly. More solutions are being incorporated into mainstream devices like smart phones and tablets. Equipment like 3D scanners and printers can now produce items that are very much more customised to the individuals. With 3D scanners you can begin to apply it to individuals, and for individuals with disabilities, it really makes a lot of difference for it to be customisable. Simple things like pen holders for example, so it fits those with cerebral palsy, how it can fit the dimensions of your hands. Different individuals will have different disabilities, and by customising it, that will also go a very long way.
It is also about lowering the cost of ownership. You will see items that are really exciting, but the cost may be prohibitive. Sometimes it’s a function of volume, and obviously we’re a much smaller market here. But that’s where we hope to work with different partners, to adapt some of these things, and create versions that are applicable and perhaps a lot more viable, here in Singapore.
As you all know, we have a very big effort to become a smarter nation, the “Smart Nation” effort. The Smart Nation effort cannot be just for most of us, it needs to be for all of us. A Smart Nation must embrace this effort to bring in Singaporeans with different abilities, and Tech Able will hopefully play a very important role in that effort.
We can, we will, and we certainly must do more to promote the use of technology among persons with disabilities. For some of the things you see here, I understand that some of them are available, not necessarily in Singapore, but they’re out there. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. So I hope that with the establishment of a place like this, we can begin to start to know of things that are being done out there. We want to be able to bring together different things that are available out there, and hopefully begin to spark off the imaginations of engineers, product designers, and from there begin to innovate.
For example, I just saw how we can adapt work places using colour codes. Why would a restaurant, for example, change its layout just to accommodate that. But the whole idea of colour coding and designing things in particular ways to facilitate the ways someone with different talents might work, might spark off someone else to begin to think about how you evolve the idea, which perhaps will have not just practical applicability, but also be viable on a commercial basis as well.
And that’s what I hope Tech Able will be able to do, bring in people to brainstorm and evolve ideas in a practical way. Because what you see here must be able to be applied in the real world, on a fairly mass basis, rather than just exclusively boutique solutions. Nevertheless, boutique solutions also matter, because individuals do have different impairments and different ways, so that’s something that also needs to be able to happen, but hopefully in a very cost effective way, so that individuals can actually own those devices.
So there are a few things that I hope Tech Able will be able to do, mainly:
- First, to make assistive technology more accessible to all.
- Second, I hope that it can spur new employment opportunities.
- Last, I hope that it can spur new ideas and solutions.
Making Technology More Accessible
How do we make technology more accessible? It is sometimes difficult for persons with disabilities and their caregivers to figure out what is available out there. One way is to make sure that SPD’s team of specialists at Tech Able begin to pull together all the different ideas, and allow individuals and caregivers to know what is available, what’s possible, and to explore what they can do for the individuals, how to use it at home, in school and at the workplace. We would like to not just bring in the ideas, but also work with partners to adapt their usage at the particular environments they will operate in.
Spurring Employment Opportunities
Employment is important. Technology can help us to adjust and adapt the work we do, so that other Singaporeans can evolve as well. How do we begin to structure training programmes? For example, in the communications training lab here, training will start in November on how to manage contact centre work.
I am very encouraged to see that SG Enable is already working with industry partners to develop this. For example, Singtel. I’m sure we will continue to improve on that, and see how best to bring in Singaporeans to play a role, and to expand to other areas as well. We would like to encourage different employers who are keen, to partner us, to explore what is possible.
With IDA’s support, SG Enable will explore other tech-enabled opportunities, such as training in communications and technology related work. The possibilities are endless.
Assistive technology can also help bring about more inclusive workplaces. Through ST Engineering's support, the home-office showcase here will allow employers to see and experience how assistive technology can be viable in work settings, and lower the threshold so that they don’t feel it’s very difficult, but that there are very practical, simple ways to adapt their work places. This is a message not just to the private sector, but to government agencies too. I expect us to take a lead role to shape the space, and we are a large employer.
Employers can tap on the government’s Open Door Programme to offset the cost of workplace modifications or job redesign. Their managers and staff can receive funded training on how they can better integrate co-workers with disabilities.
Creating New Solutions
As I said, some existing solutions may be out there, but perhaps difficult to bring in due to volume, or no after-sales support. And this is where local solutions need to come in. And I hope Singaporeans who are interested in contributing in this sphere, can come together to brainstorm and build a thriving community so that researchers, designers, social entrepreneurs and even volunteers can get involved and see how we can make life better for our fellow Singaporeans.
We can and must engage persons with disabilities, those who will ultimately use the solutions, so that they can actively shape the devices to be exactly what they need, and so that the devices are not just interesting products, but something really practical as well.
Real Life Inspirations
Let me now share with you two real-life stories of Benson and Dickson, who are here today.
36 year old Benson sustained spinal cord injuries from a traffic accident in 2002. It left him paralysed and unable to walk. A graphic assistant, Benson aspires to continue to support his ageing parents and younger undergraduate brother. With help from SPD professionals and support from the Assistive Technology Fund, Benson is now using an active wheelchair, which is lighter and more mobile. Unlike a motorised one, it enables him to get around more easily and stay out of home longer without worrying about being stranded with a flat battery. He is also able to have a more active lifestyle and participate in community activities.
21 year old Dickson was born with a rare degenerative disease that results in severe loss of vision. At primary school, when he was in primary four, one of Dickson’s teachers taught him how to use a screen reader. He became more proficient over the years. At secondary school, he would get soft copies of materials and make use of screen readers to read out the material to him. It was a lot more efficient than using enlarged print or having them converted to braille.
In 2011, Dickson became the first legally blind student to pursue a diploma at Nanyang Polytechnic. And he made it to the Director’s List for four consecutive semesters! Using assistive technology has sparked Dickson’s interest in computers. He is now pursuing a degree in computer science at NUS. I understand he is keen to explore how technology can be used to overcome the limitations of being visually impaired.
This is where you can see how lives are transformed, and we need to share stories like these. Not only will they provide hope and opportunities, but hopefully they spur us or those in the field, to think of products to be invented or adapted, or bring them in so that lives can be transformed.
So you can see what this simple space will be like. I hope that it can be a place where like-minded people can come together to see how we can brainstorm and transform lives. The whole idea of being an inclusive society, really is about us moving forward together, and allowing all Singaporeans to be able to progress.
I would like to thank our contributors and partners who have been involved in this for many years. This is a testimony to all your efforts, and this is not the end. This hopefully will be the spark for us to embark on the next bound, and there are a lot of exciting possibilities.
Thank you very much to all of you who have made this happen.