Saturday, 4 June 2016

'See the True Me' disability awareness campaign launched

People with disabilities in the spotlight
Campaign launched to raise awareness of how to interact with and support them
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2016

Six in 10 people with disabilities do not feel that they are socially included, accepted or given opportunities to achieve their potential, a government survey has found.

Of the general public who were polled, only 3 per cent of respondents would be comfortable marrying someone with a disability, and just one-third are fine with being close friends with a person with disabilities.

People also view those with autism or intellectual impairments less favourably compared with persons with physical disabilities.

These are some of the findings from a series of surveys last year by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) that polled a total of 3,500 people, including caregivers of those with disabilities.

Yesterday, the council launched a $5 million, five-year campaign to raise awareness of disability issues.

Survey findings have been used to shape the campaign, which includes talks and a website to provide guidance on how to interact with people with disabilities.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who launched the "See The True Me" campaign yesterday, said Singapore has made much progress in building the infrastructure needed for people with disabilities to get around, but that is not enough.

"Beyond the physical hardware and infrastructure, what is even more important is to raise awareness within the wider community of disability issues, and to nurture the right attitudes when interacting with persons with disabilities among us," he said.

Mr Tan cited how a visiting speaker, who was in Singapore to deliver the keynote speech at a disability event, shared his delight about going for a swimming lesson as the pools here are wheelchair-friendly. He had contracted polio when he was young and uses a wheelchair to get around.

However, he was later told that the coach was unable to teach him together with other students.

He also did not feel included as the other participants did not know how to engage him or felt awkward doing so.

Mr Sim Gim Guan, NCSS' chief executive, said its studies show that there seems to be a lack of understanding or awareness by the public about persons with disabilities, especially those with less visible impairments such as autism.

"The lack of understanding often results in the public hesitating to interact and support persons with disabilities or to overcompensate in helping them regardless of their desire to be helped or not. There is a need to moderate both approaches," he said.

On the one hand, for example, Mr Sim said he has heard about how some well-meaning relatives of a man with a visual impairment helped him to carry his things and insisted that he slow down his walking pace when he did not need such special treatment.

On the other hand, people such as Ms Chen Wanyi, 27, often felt left out in school. Ms Chen, who has Down syndrome, said she was bullied in the past.

She said things have improved now because her colleagues at the hotel she works in are friendly and protective of her.

Mr Andrew Soh, assistant director at Down Syndrome Association, said public attitudes are less favourable towards people with autism and intellectual impairments, compared with those with physical disabilities, because people fear what they cannot see.

"People can't tell how serious their disability is and don't know what to say or how to help them," he said.

The lack of acceptance is especially prevalent when it comes to employment.

More than a third of the public will not hire people with disabilities if they are employers.

Mr Ong Peng Kai, 24, who has cerebral palsy, felt this sentiment first-hand when he tried to find a job last year.

"I studied maths and economics at university so I sent out about 30 resumes to banks, investment and insurance companies but none of them got back to me," said Mr Ong, who was eventually hired by NCSS as an assistant manager.

The president of the Disabled People's Association, Mr Nicholas Aw, said the campaign should target the young more.

"Such educational campaigns will help but how much they can help is a question mark. Sometimes people are aware but they are just not walking the talk," he said.

"Mindsets are hard to change so we need to go into the schools and start with the young because they are more open and receptive."

Mr Ong agreed. He recalled numerous times when parents asked their children to keep quiet whenever they pointed at him and asked them about his condition.

"I don't blame the children because they are young but if the parents give up such opportunities to educate them, it becomes a vicious circle and children will adopt the same behaviour when they grow up and become parents," he said.

Key findings

• 62 per cent of the 1,000 people with disabilities surveyed do not feel they are socially included, accepted or given opportunities to achieve their potential.

• 57 per cent of people with disabilities feel they have no control over their lives.

• People with disabilities feel the public sees their differences as limitations for which they need protection and different treatment.

• Only 3 per cent of the 1,400 members of the public polled would be comfortable marrying a person with a disability.

• Only 36 per cent would be comfortable with being close friends with a disabled person.

• People view those with autism or intellectual impairments less favourably compared with people with physical disabilities.


The hard - and heart - part of inclusiveness for the disabled
A recent survey shows that many Singaporeans remain uncomfortable interacting with people with disabilities. To change mindsets, create more opportunities for interaction.
By Theresa Tan, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2016

When I was in secondary school, I had a friend who hardly talked about her sister. The only thing I knew about her mysterious sibling was that she lived in the "Tampines home". I naively assumed that her parents were very rich, had two properties and that her sister was living at their home in Tampines.

It was only much later that I realised the Tampines Home was a home for people with intellectual disabilities. It was also at that point that my friend's reticence about her sister suddenly made sense.

When I was growing up in the 1980s and '90s, many families kept their disabled children mostly at home or in institutions - out of sight and out of the public's mind. They did so perhaps out of shame, fear or helplessness.

There were also few reasons to go out as there were few support services, much less job openings, for the disabled, compared to what is available now.

But it was also clearly in response to the lack of understanding by Singaporeans in general.

Given the segregation between most Singaporeans and the disabled, it comes as no surprise that two recent surveys found that a sizeable number of Singaporeans still feel uncomfortable interacting with the disabled and that the latter feel shut out from society.

This is disappointing, especially after all the efforts by the Government and charities to improve the lives of those with disabilities in the past decade.

Just take a look at the findings:

The Lien Foundation survey of 1,000 people on their attitudes towards children with disabilities found that close to two-thirds of the respondents shared the belief that Singaporeans are willing to share public spaces with children with special needs, but are not willing to interact with them.

Half of the parents polled were uncomfortable about their child having to sit next to one with special needs in class.

As for the disabled themselves, a survey of 1,000 people with disabilities, released last Thursday by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), found that 62 per cent of them do not feel they are included, accepted, given opportunities to contribute or reach their potential by society.

It is no wonder they feel thus, given the survey findings that so many are uncomfortable interacting with them.

It is clear that the calls for inclusion of people with disabilities have not gained traction with many ordinary Singaporeans.

The Government has done a lot more for the disabled in the past decade, like giving more funding for education and therapy services, among other things, for children with special needs.

But the hard - and heart - part of changing mindsets to accept and include those with disabilities remains a challenge. And this is not something that can be achieved just by pouring money into it.

More needs to be done to promote inclusion. And there is some urgency in this, because the number of young children diagnosed with developmental conditions, such as autism, speech and language delays and global developmental delay, has tripled in the past decade. Last year, about 4,000 children were diagnosed with developmental problems, up from about 1,300 in 2005.

Experts have said that about 5 per cent to 6 per cent of children born here have some form of developmental problem. With more diagnosed, more of those with mild conditions will go on to mainstream schools. Also last year, there were about 13,000 students - or about 2.7 per cent of the student population - with mild special needs or learning difficulties in mainstream schools. That's almost triple the number in 2006.

It is no longer inconceivable that your child may sit next to one with special needs at school.

The number of the disabled in Singapore is likely to rise.

More children may be diagnosed as awareness, detection and capabilities to manage these conditions improve. Singapore is also ageing rapidly, and old age and illness can render a senior disabled.


How does one change mindsets towards the disabled?

It is a no-brainer, but public education is needed to raise awareness of disability issues. Over one-third of those surveyed in the Lien Foundation poll said children with special needs are not part of their social circle. Even those who know a special needs child (through friends or relatives) say they are not always comfortable interacting with the child. The most common feelings they have in such interactions are empathy, pity and love.

This suggests that the lack of interaction and the concerns about their children sitting next to a special needs child spring more from ignorance and uncertainty than prejudice. If so, the best way to change mindsets is through interaction, by creating ways to facilitate meaningful interaction between people with and those without disabilities. This can help correct misconceptions.

Charities that support those with disabilities, such as the Disabled People's Association (DPA) and SPD, have been holding talks to raise awareness about disability issues for years. The DPA goes to schools, offices and other organisations to get the public to understand what people with disabilities are going through and to think of how to ease the barriers.

Some students who attended these talks have gone on to run similar campaigns at their schools, said DPA executive director Marissa Medjeral-Mills.

On a larger scale, the NCSS also launched its disability awareness campaign last Thursday.

Through a website ( and public talks on various disabilities as well as tips on how to communicate and interact with people with disabilities, among other measures, the NCSS hopes to promote inclusion.

Raising awareness aside, there also has been a greater push to promote inclusion and interaction between children with and those without disabilities.

For example, in 2012, the Education Ministry said the 20 special education schools for children with disabilities would be paired with mainstream schools, so that students from both schools have opportunities to mingle, for example, during recess and at school events.

In January, a charity started Singapore's first inclusive pre-school. At Kindle Garden, run by AWWA, children with disabilities learn and play alongside other kids in the same classroom. About 30 per cent of its children from 18 months to six years of age have disabilities, such as autism or Down syndrome.

School principal Lena Koh said both groups of children get along, play and learn together naturally, without fear or hesitation.

"Children do not discriminate or single out children with disabilities," she said. "It's the adults who tend to do that."

The pre-school is filled to its capacity of 75 children and has a waiting list of 138.

This is an encouraging sign. Research shows that children with classmates with disabilities learn how to interact with those who are different from them. They are more likely to develop positive self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills when their experience of such interactions is positive, said Dr Kenneth Poon, associate professor of early childhood and special education at the National Institute of Education.

Hopefully, with more Kindle Gardens around, more parents will find that it is not so scary to have their child playing or studying with a special needs kid after all.

And their children will form the foundation of a truly inclusive Singapore.

And those with disabilities will no longer be apart from society, but a part of it.


Collective effort can help the disabled lead dignified lives

We thank The Straits Times for two insightful commentaries ("The hard - and heart - part of inclusiveness for the disabled"; June 9, and "Let's get off the 'euphemism treadmill'"; last Friday).

We are very heartened that the recent launch of the Disability Awareness Campaign has generated conversations both online and in print.

These will go a long way to help all of us take time to reflect more deeply and more meaningfully on how we can embrace and include people with disabilities in Singapore.

Developed from insights and research findings gathered from 3,500 people with disabilities and the general public, the See The True Me campaign aims to shift public mindsets to not just focus on the disability that a person may have, but also all other aspects of his life.

Through our campaign video and collateral, our ambassadors highlight their interests, aspirations and abilities and also indicate that they have a condition. Ms Selina Gomez, mother of Ivan Gomez who has autism, summed it up eloquently when she said "autism is what my son has, not who he is".

The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) will continue to embark on projects and initiatives to promote inclusion in the community. The inclusive playgrounds in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and Ghim Moh and the complementary Children in Action programme are examples of such initiatives.

Another effort is Buddy'IN, a programme aimed at socially integrating graduating students from special education schools with their peers from institutes of higher learning, through semi-structured social activities and sessions.

Students with special needs form peer support networks and learn age-appropriate behaviours while their peers gain awareness and understanding of people with disabilities.

Our upcoming Community Chest Heartstrings Walk 2016, to be held on July 31, seeks to get more people to participate alongside those with disabilities and others helped by the various charities, for more social interaction.

The Disabled People's Association and the SPD will also be holding free disability awareness talks in July and August, in collaboration with our campaign. Details may be found at

We encourage the public to participate in these activities to gain greater knowledge and to interact with people with disabilities.

NCSS will continue to collaborate with social service organisations, people with disabilities, caregivers, community partners and the Government to enable and ensure every person with disability lives a dignified life. Together, we can collectively make a difference.

Sim Gim Guan
Chief Executive Officer
National Council of Social Service
ST Forum, 17 Jun 2016



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