Thursday, 17 April 2014

Help under way to get special needs students ready for work

New scheme to give students access to job training and opportunities
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 16 Apr 2014

A NEW school-to-work transition programme will give students with special needs greater support when they move on to the workplace, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat revealed yesterday.

His ministry will work with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and agency SG Enable to develop the pilot progamme, which will begin this year.

At yesterday's official opening of the Association for Persons with Special Needs' (APSN) Delta Senior School, Mr Heng said the plan is to have "more customised training pathways to benefit more special education students".

Currently, only Delta Senior School and Metta Schools - both for students with mild intellectual disabilities - offer national vocational certification programmes.

These have enabled one in four special education (SPED) graduates to find work, he said, adding that the new transition programme will give students access to job training and opportunities.

There are 20 SPED schools here catering to 5,000 students, aged from seven to 18, who have intellectual disabilities, autism or visual and hearing impairments. A multi-agency committee will work with a few SPED schools this year, Mr Heng told the audience.

The team, he said, will "study the critical success factors, processes and resources needed for effective transition support for students with the potential to work".

The programme will start in a student's final year of school and continue after he graduates and starts work. It will be rolled out to more schools in phases from 2016.

Delta Senior School, which has 380 students, moved to its new 12,000 sq m campus in June last year.

The $18 million campus in Choa Chu Kang has training facilities, including kitchens, a supermarket, garden and restaurant.

The post-secondary school, set up in 1997, caters to youth aged 16 and above with special needs.

It offers nationally recognised Workforce Skills Qualifications certificates in four areas: hotel and accommodation services, horticulture and landscape operations, food and beverage services or culinary arts, and retail operations.

The school has partnerships with more than 50 employers. More than 90 per cent of its students find work upon graduating.

Student Felicia Toh, 19, who will graduate with a certificate in food and beverage services, said: "The new campus is so much better. There are more facilities and everything is bigger."

The school is one of four run by the APSN, along with Chaoyang School, Katong School and Tanglin School.

The association, established in 1976, also has a centre providing education and job training to adults with mild intellectual disabilities.

More training options to help special needs students get jobs
Pilot will allow them to remain in school to learn vocational skills even after they turn 18
By Siau Ming En, TODAY, 16 Apr 2014

More vocational skills training options will open up for special needs students with varying profiles and needs, easing their entry into the workforce, under a two-year pilot announced by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

The move, the latest in a slew of social and education initiatives targeting this group, could also resolve a bind currently faced by special needs students who are unable to get vocational certifications.

Speaking at the official opening of the Association for Persons with Special Needs’ (APSN) Delta Senior School’s new campus yesterday, Mr Heng said there are plans to provide alternative training pathways for more special education students.

Noting that the national vocational certification programmes currently offered by Delta Senior School and Metta School are the only established pathway for a small group of students — those with mild intellectual disabilities — to be gainfully employed, Mr Heng added: “The idea is to provide customised job opportunities and training that are designed based on the students’ diverse profiles and needs.”

Under the school-to-work transition pilot, which will be offered in selected special education (SPED) schools initially but rolled out to more schools eventually, the majority of special needs students could continue receiving vocational skills training in their schools after they turn 18.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua, a vocal advocate for special needs education, welcomed the programme and said it will expand the pool of work-capable graduates from SPED schools. She went as far as to describe the move as the slaying of a sacred cow.

“The pilot programme will allow students who are assessed to have the potential to do some form of work, but may not be able to earn a work certificate, to be trained too,” she said. “They may not stay as long as two to three years for a work certificate, but they are likely to be given a longer runway to be trained for work, instead of exiting at the age of 18.”

During the Budget debate last month, the Ministry of Education had unveiled initiatives such as expanding the dyslexia remediation programme to more primary schools, as well as setting up Disability Support Offices and a Special Education Needs fund at higher learning institutes, as part of efforts to bring out the best in every child, even among special needs students.

The pilot programme will be developed through a multi-agency working committee from the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social and Family Development and SG Enable.

Although more details will be announced by his ministry later, Mr Heng said yesterday the programme will begin in a student’s final year of school and continue after he graduates, even after he takes on a job. He added that there are also plans to offer the programme in more SPED schools, in phases, from 2016. At present, through the national vocational certification programmes, one in four SPED school graduates secures jobs.

Delta Senior School currently offers Workforce Skills Qualification certification in Food and Beverage Operations and Culinary Arts, Hotel and Accommodation Services, Landscape Operations and Retail Operations, where more than 90 per cent of graduates are employed today.

Its new S$18 million campus in Choa Chu Kang will offer industrial kitchens and mock-ups of work sites — such as a Giant supermarket — among other facilities.

Metta School offers ITE Skills Certification in areas such as baking, housekeeping, food preparation and hospitality.

Ms Phua cited some challenges the committee will have to address. For instance, they will have to determine where to set the bar for assessing the work capabilities of special needs students.

“If set too low, there is the risk of finally having no employers willing to employ the students. If set too high, the impact of the pilot will be small,” she said.

They will also have to manage the likelihood of families who may insist their children are work-ready.

For those who are unsuitable for open or supported employment, the authorities may have to co-create other options with other stakeholders, she added.

More firms hiring people with disabilities
Tight labour market proving to be a boon for them; govt subsidies also help
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

MORE companies are opening their doors to employees with disabilities in recent years.

About 2,000 employers who hired 3,200 disabled workers in the first six months of 2012 received wage subsidies, under a government fund set up to encourage the hiring of older and disabled workers.

As at December last year, more than 4,500 employers received the subsidies for hiring 5,700 disabled workers.

They benefit from the Special Employment Credit scheme, in which the Government pays up to 16 per cent of the salary of workers with physical or intellectual disabilities, for those earning up to $4,000 a month.

Before 2012, the scheme covered only employers hiring workers above 50 years old and earning up to $4,000 a month.

Some voluntary welfare organisations catering to the disabled are also seeing more companies keen to hire their clients.

The Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) had 35 companies hiring its clients last year, up from 25 the year before.

The number of companies hiring clients of the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) grew from four in 2012, to nine last year.

Mrs Michelle Liau, principal of APSN Delta Senior School, said more companies are aware of the work capabilities of the disabled.

"Many employers are seeing persons with disabilities as valuable employees. Hiring them helps create a more inclusive work environment for all staff, and improve the overall perception of the company," she said.

ARC president Denise Phua said more employers are willing to employ the disabled due to the tight labour market, but added that training and support for the disabled at work were important.

"The challenge is to find an employer who's willing to put in the extra mile to modify the work systems and provide support, not just on a one-time basis, but on an ongoing basis," said Ms Phua, who is also an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

Earlier this week, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had announced the start, later this year, of a new school-to-work transition programme that will give students with special needs more support when they move on to work.

The plan is to have "more customised training pathways" for students' diverse needs, he said.

The programme will begin in a student's final year of school and continue after he starts work.

Fashion retailer Uniqlo and global coffee chain Starbucks are among those that have joined the growing list of companies that hire disabled workers here.

Uniqlo started hiring intellectually disabled employees in 2012, and has 20 such workers in its 16 outlets here.

Hiring the disabled helps it fulfil its corporate social responsibility, said its spokesman. Other staff also benefit as they learn to have a better understanding of working with the disabled, he said.

Starbucks hired six clients from ARC for its 100th store here, which opened at the Fullerton Waterboat House two months ago. It has committed to have ARC clients form at least 25 per cent of the staff at the store.

Mr Jeff Hansberry, president of Starbucks China and Asia Pacific, said hiring the disabled is in line with the company's values of "embracing diversity and providing a rewarding work environment to people of all backgrounds".

While some modifications to the workplace had to be made, such as having flipcharts of drink recipes for reference, the ARC clients "have a great attention to detail and are very accurate in preparing beverages", said Ms Ruth Yam, director of marketing and category at Starbucks Singapore.

Mr Marcus Lim, 23, an ARC client, said his six months of job training before being hired as a Starbucks barista was important.

Learning how to prepare coffee was difficult, but picking up soft skills was even harder "because we need to meet customers' different expectations", he said.

But he is thankful for the job opportunity. "I get to meet a lot of people and make new friends."

Help disabled: Develop job accommodation expertise

IT IS heartening to see more employers in Singapore engaging people with disabilities ("More firms hiring people with disabilities"; April 19).

Employment is a crucial factor in the integration of people with disabilities in the community, as it gives them the means to be self-reliant and financially independent.

People with disabilities are a potential pool of talent that employers can tap.

Many myths and misperceptions exist that keep people with disabilities from entering the workforce. Yet, they are no less reliable, talented or productive than their peers.

Research has shown that employees with disabilities have higher attendance, take less sick leave, are involved in fewer accidents at work, and incur lower recruitment costs than their colleagues.

However, some employers may be apprehensive about what they need to do to meet the needs of people with disabilities. In fact, modifications to the working environment need not be extensive; many are actually simple, such as making slight adjustments to office furniture and installing automatic doors.

Companies can tap schemes such as the Open Door Programme, which provides funding for job redesign, workplace modification, integration and apprenticeship programmes. The Building and Construction Authority's Accessibility Fund can also be tapped for modification of office buildings.

More importantly, the public needs to recognise that people with disabilities can work efficiently if given the opportunities, training and accommodation support such as assistive technology, job modification and job redesign.

The Society for the Physically Disabled runs an Employment Support Programme that provides job placement and job support services for people with disabilities.

Our employment support specialists also offer advice to potential employers to help them understand the needs of people with disabilities and guide them on the accommodations needed to ensure a successful placement.

In many parts of the world, job accommodation is a structured process. For instance, in Australia, JobAccess is a government initiative that supports the employment of people with disabilities.

It offers a comprehensive range of information and advice on different disabilities; step-by-step guides and checklists on workplace accessibility, solutions and adjustments; and information on recruitment, job searching and employer incentives.

Such support is still lacking in Singapore. To encourage more employers to hire people with disabilities, it is perhaps timely for us to look at developing job accommodation expertise in Singapore, to provide employers with more consultancy support.

Abhimanyau Pal
Executive Director
Society for the Physically Disabled
ST Forum, 28 Apr 2014

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