Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 22 January-March 2004

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Singapore: employment opportunities for disabled people

By Dr. S. Vasoo, Head, Department of Social Work and Psychology, National University of Singapore

Editor's Note: The following article, selected by ILRU,  is reprinted from the September 1997 issue of the Asia & Pacific Journal on Disability because it is an exceptionally in-depth piece. The author, Dr. S. Vasoo, reports from his vantage pont of both an educator as head of the Social Work and Psychology Department of the National University of Singapore and as a Member of Parliament.

Employment opportunities for the disabled in Singapore have improved in the last two decades. Despite good prospects for their employment, there are a number of factors which affect their employability. The paper explores some of these issues and suggests some ways which will enhance the employability of the disabled in Singapore.

The employment opportunities for the disabled in Singapore have increased in the last two decades because of strong economic development (Bizlink, 1995). Various types of jobs requiring different skills have emerged and such a situation poses challenges to the disabled persons as they need to be adequately prepared and trained for open employment.

More lower and higher end jobs are now available as a result of the tight labour market. At the same time, with the low unemployment rate of about two percent in Singapore (Yearbook of Statistics, 1995) as compared to ten percent (The Economist, 1996) in many developed countries, the competition for jobs between the disabled and the able-bodied is less stiff. Employers are more prepared to consider a trained disabled for employment as he is unlikely to job-hop.

Since the Ministry of Community Development's (MCD) macro-survey in 1985, there has been no study on problems and the needs of the disabled. Centralised record on employment patterns of the disabled have not been compiled yet. There is some scattered information on the employment situation of the disabled compiled by agencies dealing with them. However, to tackle the problems of employment of the disabled more effectively, it will be necessary for the Ministry of Community Development and the National Council of Social Service to work together to collate information of the problems and the needs of the disabled. A comprehensive information on their needs and problems will be useful for more effective plans to be implemented to assist them to develop their potentials.

Based on the 1985 MCD data and recent informed opinions from voluntary service agencies, it is assessed that unemployment rate continues to be high among the visually, intellectually and neuro-muscular disabled. Most of them are between 21 and 35 years old. These groups of disabled will continue to dominate and there is a good potential for promoting their employability (Bizlink, 1995).

Since the establishment of Bizlink Centre in 1986, a more concerted effort has emerged to assess and place disabled for employment. In the past 8 years (1988-1995), the Bizlink Centre has helped to place 1903 disabled persons into various gainful occupations from professional and technical positions to production work. About 76 percent of the disabled have found employmnet in the service and production fields and 21 percent in the clerical field (Bizlink, 1995a). The employment profiles of the disabled will change when they acquire better educational and skilled training. Therefore, archaic and outmoded training and preparation of the disabled by various concerned agencies should be discontinued as it will make them less employable, particularly in the changing Singapore job market.

Despite the improved prospects for employment of the disabled, the number of disabled who have been placed in jobs has not grown significantly. Bizlink Centre placed an average of about 225 disabled annually onto jobs excluding the attrition resulting from job mismatch (Bizlink, 1995a).

The less than attractive rate of employment of the disabled is affected by a number of factors such as negative community attitude, transportation problems, environmental barriers, ineffective service delivery, lack of skills and inadequate facilities. These factors are examined subsequently in some details.

Negative Community Attitude
Generally many people including potential employers are still prejudiced against the disabled who are often stereotyped as incapable and have no abilities to manage work. Such an orthodox perception is still prevalent. Perhaps worse than this attitude is the indifference. Disabled are seen as an economic liability and have no potential. The community tries to evaluate the disabled in terms of the capabilities of the normal population (Report of the Committee on Employment, 1988).

Another common phenomenon is social stigmatization. Many disabled who are stigmatized are seen as not normal. People exercise a lot of discrimination and rationalize a number of ways for not giving appropriate treatment to the disabled.

It must be pointed out that not all members of the community have adverse attitude towards the disabled. There are people who are sympathetic and take pity of their needs. It is noteworthy that a large number of benevolent organisations have been set-up by these people to help meet the needs of the disabled. Pity which is patronising can prevent the disabled from being independent. Some parents and managements of organisations are so protective that they fail to encourage their disabled to learn to work independently.

Minority Status
The disabled can be affected by the minority status. They usually form a minority of the Singapore population and hence are likely to be assigned a minority status. As a consequence, they may inadvertently be marginalised by the non-disabled to helpless roles. Transfer of resources from the more able can be less forthcoming unless their social conscience is prodded. In the Singapore context, it is still fortunate that there are people who are willing to come forward to contributing either effort and/or funds to support organisations assisting the disabled.

Transportation Problems
The transportation problem is one of the major issues facing the disabled. Without a customised transportation system, many disabled who will otherwise be able to join workforce will be confined to their homes. Although some attempts have been made to deal with the transportation needs of the disabled, the problem has remained complex but not insolvable (Report of the Committee on Employment, 1988).

Here in Singapore, due to the limited land area and dense population, effective solutions have yet to be found to solve the increasing traffic congestions and problems. Therefore, given this situation, the transportation problem of the disabled is unlikely to be given priority attention. It is likely that the National Council of Social Service will be assigned the task to find various arrangements to tackle the issue. For a long term solution, it cannot be avoided that some subsidies will be necessary for operating a customized transportation scheme for the disabled who can be economically productive. For without such a scheme, some disabled will find it difficult to join the workforce and hence become more financially dependent.

Physical Barriers
Besides human barriers, the disabled do continue to face problems of access to public facilities and buildings. Generally work places have not been fully accessible and therefore a deterrence to employment of the disabled. However, it is encouraging to note that more enlightened employers have taken active steps to make their workplaces barrier-free.

A barrier-free and user friendly environment will facilitate the mobility of the disabled and remove barrier to their employability. Almost 90 percent of our population live in high-rise housing estates. As our population is aging faster than many developing countries and the incidence of disability among the aged population would increase, it is essential to make our estates more user friendly. Accessibility code should be implemented more vigorously (Report of the Committee on Employment, 1988).

Non-proactive Management
Some of the agencies serving the disabled have not made progressive changes in the delivery of their services. Their rehabilitation and training programmes have not kept in tandem with the changes of the job market. Most of the skills and training programmes including the tools used are antiquated. Hence, without relevant training to meet the job requirements in the market, the disabled become less employable.

Some managements of agencies serving the disabled are not as proactive as they should be and they adopt 'laissez faire' approach in their service delivery The managements are not responsive to market demands for relevant vocational skills and preparation. The facilities and resources of the agencies are under-utilized and a dwindling number of disabled are engaged on vocational activities which are outdated and non-viable. It is urgent for managements of agencies serving the disabled to take more pragmatic decisions to network and share out premises for either training or setting of sheltered workshops to cater for various disabled groups.

Inadequate Vocational Skills and Educational Level
Generally, the disabled who are trainable lacked the vocational skills for work in the manufacturing and commercial sectors. The vocational training programmes for the disabled are not relevant to the job requirements in the industries hence it is more difficult to place the disabled on the jobs.

The lack of a systematic vocational skills training package in most agencies dealing with the disabled reflects the lack of professional expertise available to provide inputs. Therefore, some existing training settings function as holding units to keep the disabled occupied in mundane activities such as basket weaving, polishing, folding cartons and cutting wires. A complete review of the vocational training programme should be undertaken (Report of the Committee on Employment, 1985).

It is noted that many of the disabled have primary education and below. This being the case, their educational standards must first be improved prior to vocational skills training.

Some Realistic Solutions
In enhancing the employability of the disabled, one must prepare them to have marketable skills. To digress from this objective, will lessen their work opportunities. First and foremost fact is that the disabled must be adequately trained with a vocational skill and then placed in suitable employment. Other realistic solutions to make them employable should also be pursued.

Public Education
A comprehensive public relation exercise to publicize successful disabled in various occupations could be undertaken. These successful human interest portrayals will increase public awareness of the potentials of the disabled. When more people become enlightened about the potentials of the disabled, the employment opportunities of the disabled could improve.

Public education should steer clear from dwelling in pity and sympathy for the disabled. The positive aspects of their human potentials must be emphasized.

Changing Employer Attitude
Employers who have hired disabled and those who have prospects to employ the disabled should be identified and formed into a task force to promote employment of the disabled. It is through the publicity of successful cases of disabled that more positive attitude among employers could be developed. Agencies dealing with disabled should reach out to more potential employers who can be enlisted to become friends of the organisations.

The government has employed some disabled persons. She can take the lead to employing more of them in information and counter services. Through government endorsement in employing the disabled, private sectors will also become more open to employ them.

Perhaps more tax incentives can be given to employers who are disabled friendly. This can change the attitude of employers and can be more effective than legislating the employment of the disabled.

Reducing Physical Barriers
Physical barriers in work settings in which the employers are interested in employing the disabled have to be reduced and better incentives to modify buildings should be considered. The present relief of up to a maximum of $100,000 accorded to owners of buildings is a small sum and should be increased. Besides, the relief should cover the purchase of special equipment to assist the disabled to be productive.

Where possible the housing estate environment should be further modified for easy commutation of the disabled to work places.

Customised Transportation
In order to meet point-to-point transportation to work for the disabled, it is necessary to expand the present customised transport service. The fleet of vehicles managed by Handicaps Welfare Association and Society for Aid to Paralysed could be centralized to meet economy of scale. The fleet of vehicles could be increased with the support of additional grants from the Transport Authority to operate the transport system more efficiently. To make it viable, the fleet of vehicles should be allowed to pick up passengers when they are not used by the disabled.

Proactive Management
The service delivery system of some agencies must be reviewed to make it more cost effective. Agencies serving a small declining number of the disabled should join force with needy disabled agencies to serve a bigger pool of other disabled. Better use of space and facilities for vocational training could result with the pooling of agencies and their resources. Where possible, control by interested parties and groups in the management of agencies should be prevented. This will reduce parochial interest in the management and better strategies for the employability of the disabled could be implemented without delay.

Cooperative Workshops and Enterprises
The prospects for setting up co-operative workshops and enterprises to take on contract work such as packaging, horticultural, environmental, cleansing and building maintenance have not been fully explored. Viable co-operative enterprises through share ownership by the disabled and his family members, interested individuals, trade unions, and business could be established. These certainly generate more gainful employment for the disabled.

The efforts to promote the employment of the disabled are fragmented. A number of salient issues which hamper their employability are inter-related and they must be all tackled concertedly. Most importantly the disabled must be trained to have marketable skills. There must be barrier free work places, available customised transportation systems, positive employer attitude and a proactive management in agencies serving the disabled.

Bizlink. (1995). Report on Bizlink Centre. Singapore.

Bizlink. (1995a). Overview of Services of Bizlink Centre. Singapore.

Report of the Committee on Employment, Accessibility and Transportation for Disabled People. (1998). Singapore.

The Economist. (1996). Vol 338 No 7954. p 118. London.

Yearbook of Statistics. (1995). No. 10. Singapore: Department of Statistics.

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