Inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWDs) has been at the forefront of many initiatives rolled out in Singapore but traction and progress has been slow. On 13 November 2019, Debra Lam, co-founder of Society Staples, shared insights on what it takes for us to build inclusive communities.
She began by introducing Society’s Staples work, which included organising team-building exercises, community events to create shared experiences with PWDs, and organising capacity building workshops. These are offered to organisations who want to be more inclusive in terms of their products and services or intend to bring more PWDs into their workforce.
Humans have an inherent need to belong, and the prerequisites of having a belonging to a community are diversity and inclusion. Fundamentally, diversity among us already exists as everyone is different. However, inclusion is still something we struggle to achieve as a society, even if it is extensively discussed in Singapore.
The idea of inclusion can manifest itself in various forms. Infrastructure that aid PWDs, such as wheelchair-accessible ramps, illustrate physical inclusion. However, such structures may not lead to real inclusion; playgrounds that feature “inclusive” structures cater solely to PWDs and are placed away from the rest of the equipment designed for, and used by, able-bodied children.
Functional inclusion is ensuring that the needs of PWDs are being accommodated to. An example is someone doing live sign-language or live-captioning a presentation so those with hearing-impairments can understand. However, once the presentation ends, such efforts are stopped, and the environment becomes non-inclusive again.
The ultimate aim is therefore to achieve social inclusion, where PWDs truly belong in every aspect of their lives, with their needs accommodated at all times. In order to truly belong, we first need to fully differentiate and eventually, we must also be accepted and embraced. PWDs have constantly differentiated themselves, either through appearance or behaviour, yet still struggle to belong in society. Unfortunately, society tends to focus on what makes them different and ignore what makes them similar to us.
This can also be seen in how terminologies do not neatly fit individuals with disabilities or special needs, especially since they are also a diverse group who identify themselves in their own terms. This is something to be recognised and respected.
There are enduring challenges in efforts to be more inclusive, such as the paradox of catering to one group of individuals with special needs that ends up excluding another group. While creating a calmer atmosphere with minimal auditory and visual stimuli helps people with autism, those with hearing and visual impairments might have more difficulty navigating the space if they depend on such cues.
Campaigns that aim to help PWDs belong in society, tend to only spotlight high-functioning individuals, capable of joining the workforce. Unfortunately, these leave out lower-functioning people who may not be able to communicate as well. As they are more “invisible” in society, they may not be treated with as much compassion because they do not appear to belong.
What can be done to be a more socially inclusive country? There is a need to think of alternative ways and widen and push the boundaries of what we know and expect. This includes ways to focus efforts on low-functioning individuals. We should allow people to belong by giving them a safe space to fully differentiate, and where they are accepted and embraced. This could mean training people to feel less anxious and awkward around PWDs, or to even connect with them.
Awareness of such issues is not enough to lead to change. With the disabilities sector in Singapore being one of the most neglected, the country needs to find a way to distribute resources, such as donation and volunteers, so that real progress can be made on this issue.
The event ended with Ms Lam addressing questions from the audience, which included how to balance conflicting needs of PWDs, whether social inclusion is a utopian idea, and whether education is compulsory for students with special needs in Singapore.