Thursday, 22 December 2016

3rd Enabling Masterplan: Panel calls for national office for disabled people

By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2016

To coordinate various initiatives to meet the needs of disabled people, experts have suggested setting up a dedicated office comprising relevant government agencies.

This office would oversee efforts ranging across sectors such as education, health and social services.

This was one of 20 recommendations made by an expert panel in the latest Enabling Masterplan, a national blueprint for disability services for next year until 2021.

It builds on the progress made through the first two blueprints, and was released yesterday after the panel consulted more than 400 people over eight months.

Panel chief Anita Fam, vice-president of the National Council of Social Service, said the previous road maps focused more on "meeting specific needs" of disabled people, namely early intervention, education and employment.

"This time, we took a person-centred approach... A person with disability has health, education and social service needs. If we can address them holistically, it would be better for the person," she said.

Hence, the recommendations focus on areas such as supporting disabled people as they transit across different life stages, such as from school to work, and improving coordination across various sectors.

This is also why the panel called for a disability office to be set up.

While the panel did not elaborate on what form this office could take, some members aired a personal view that it could be parked under the Prime Minister's Office, rather than under a single ministry.

Panel member Denise Phua, an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, suggested that the office could be led by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies.

Ms Phua said: "It would be useful in ensuring that people with special needs are not footnotes but remain in the main chapters of the Singapore story, and they are included in mainstream policies too."

Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong, president of disability charity SPD, said: "I would like it to be a high- level office, perhaps with more autonomy than just coordinating work."

The panel also called for stronger partnerships so that service providers can reap economies of scale. For instance, service providers could provide home care to both the elderly and the disabled, based on location instead of the clientele group.

The panel also proposed more support for caregivers, more opportunities for interaction between students in mainstream and special education schools, and involving employers earlier in the job training process. The Ministry of Social and Family Development will study the report and respond in due course.

Panel seeks more support to help caregivers plan for future
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2016

Madam Tan Lye Han, 60, is looking for a night job, perhaps as a cleaner at a hotel near her home. The single mother needs to care for her 24- year-old son during the day, and wants to work while he sleeps.

She lost her job as a part-time cleaner earlier this year, mainly because she had to tend to his medical issues. He has thalassemia, a blood disorder that renders him weak and sickly, and an intellectual disability.

However, beyond providing for the two of them financially, Madam Tan does not know what will become of her son when she is no longer around.

"I just hope he will be healthy, he will have a part-time job and have some friends," said Madam Tan, who lives with him in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio.

For caregivers, the single "greatest worry" is what happens to their loved ones with disabilities if they are not there to care for them.

This was voiced during discussions organised by the panel behind the latest Enabling Masterplan, a national blueprint for disability services, released yesterday.

One of its recommendations was that caregivers be given more support in planning the finances and care for people with disabilities.

There are existing services that help caregivers with financial and care planning, such as those offered by the Special Needs Trust Company, but the panel said there needs to be greater awareness of this help available.

It also suggested that the process of applying for a deputy to continue making major decisions for the person with disability when he turns 21 be simplified for caregivers.

Beyond financial and legal matters, the panel also proposed a "system of support" that will help caregivers in care planning, including identifying the next caregiver and passing on that role.

"This would include assistance with documenting and passing on caregiving-related knowledge and skills to the next caregiver. The process should be iterative and requires clear communication to the next caregiver on their roles and the needs of the person with disability," the panel said in its report.

The panel made other recommendations to improve caregivers' well-being and their capabilities. It suggested giving caregivers easier access to counselling services, expanding existing support networks and having a greater variety of training courses and the mode in which they are offered.

However, support for caregivers has to be tailored to the individual, said experts.

Noted Ms Ong Ai Weig, who teaches social work at Nanyang Polytechnic: "They have to manage their own life issues, and that of the people with disabilities. If they have insufficient support, this affects their quality of care, and ultimately affects the quality of life of the person with disability too."

The thought of caregiving training, for instance, is hardly a priority for Madam Tan.

"The cost of living has been going up. We need to earn money, so I will use my sleeping time to go and work," she said.

Key proposals
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2016

Some recommendations for the Government in the Enabling Masterplan:

• Introduce a standardised case management and care planning system, so people with disabilities can access services easily as they move through different life stages.

• Explore more opportunities for interaction between children in mainstream and special education schools, as well as such opportunities for children with and without disabilities at the pre-school level.

• Work with agencies such as Workforce Singapore and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices to promote the hiring of people with disabilities.

• Set up a disability office to improve coordination across government agencies.

• Develop a central database of people with disabilities to facilitate planning of services.

• Continue educating the public on features such as parking spaces that are meant for people with disabilities so they will not be misused.

• Fit homes with technology to enable those with disabilities to live independently in the community.

Ensure no let-up in push for inclusive society
More resources needed for education, jobs, but public views of disabled people must change too
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2016

Every five years, the Government releases a national blueprint to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

The first of these Enabling Masterplans ran from 2007 to 2011, the second from 2012 to this year, and the third will cover 2017 to 2021. Each points out unmet needs and lays out the policies and services that should be developed.

How have the recommendations been implemented? How well have the needs of people with disabilities been met over the past decade?

Certainly, the Government has devoted more resources and finances with each masterplan. Following the 2007 outline, the Government announced a doubling of the budget allocated to services for people with disabilities.

And in the second masterplan, the budget was increased to more than $1 billion to cater to a variety of needs, especially in the areas of transport and early intervention.

Public transport fare concessions were extended to people with disabilities in 2014. Those who could not take buses and trains were given subsidies to take cabs.

It also became the norm for buses, buildings and common areas to be made wheelchair-friendly or barrier-free.

More resources were allocated to education too. To help children with special needs, subsidies for early intervention programmes were bumped up in 2014.

In that year, a $30 million Open Door Programme was also introduced to help people with disabilities train and look for jobs, and to defray employers' costs in supporting them.

Last month, the Education Ministry announced compulsory education from 2019 for children with moderate to severe special needs in publicly funded schools.

Changes have also taken place at the macro level, with Singapore ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013.

It is inevitable that, in spite of all the changes, there are still gaps that need to be addressed.

First, children with special needs who receive therapy should receive assistance to attend pre-school. For now, many children with more severe developmental difficulties do not attend pre-school because of the long waiting lists at the schools. Parents also fear that the teachers are either not adequately trained or do not have the bandwidth to handle their children.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has urged countries to provide access to formal pre-school education for children with disabilities because it is a "powerful means of nurturing diverse abilities and overcoming disadvantages and inequalities".

Next, people with disabilities need more help to secure jobs. Research has shown that those who are employed lead more fulfilling lives. The significance of employment goes beyond simply being a means of earning a living.

Official data shows that only about one in 10 of those with disabilities is able to find work in the open market. Stakeholders say those who are hired are often relegated to service-related, back-end jobs that keep the employees out of sight.

Thirdly, it is time to establish a Disability Office staffed by people from the relevant health, education, manpower and social service agencies. The work is now split between different agencies and ministries.

The issues people with disabilities face cut across the different sectors. For instance, any attempt to place them in good jobs will involve several agencies.

This includes the Ministry of Manpower to rally the support of employers, the Ministry of Education to ensure people with disabilities are taught relevant vocational skills in school, and social workers to make sure those hired are coping well in the workplace.

Such a Disability Office could be parked with the Prime Minister's Office under a coordinating minister, said MP Denise Phua, one of the 22 members in the committee that developed the latest masterplan.

Lastly, there should be no let-up in the push for a truly inclusive society.

While several large surveys have found that people support the idea of inclusion, opinions are not always translated into action.There are still many who are uneasy about marrying a person with a disability, or even having special needs children sitting next to able-bodied children in class.

To make any change lasting, sustainable and useful for those who need it most, there cannot be a let-up in the will to translate each Enabling Masterplan into action.

If we still view those with disabilities as a separate community, and see the plans as something that concerns Them rather than Us, we are denying a group of people their personhood and right to participate in society.

Singapore is one of the most rapidly ageing societies in the world. The number of those with acquired disabilities due to accidents, illness and old age will rise.

Be it paralysis from a stroke or the loss of basic functions due to dementia, the range of people suffering disabilities will be far wider than those born with physical or mental impairments.

About 2.1 per cent of the student population here - or 9,660 young people below the age of 18 - have disabilities.

When it comes to people aged 50 and above, the figure rises to 13.3 per cent.

Given Singapore's ageing population, many of its citizens will one day have disabilities.

Prevalence of disabilities in different age groups revealed
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2016

For the first time, there is a clear indication of how many people with disabilities there are in different age groups.

The prevalence in the student population (aged seven to 18) is 2.1 per cent, and that in people aged 18 to 49 is 3.4 per cent.

The figure rises to 13.3 per cent for people aged 50 and above.

These were in the foreword of the report for the latest Enabling Masterplan, a national blueprint for disability services, for next year to 2021.

National Council of Social Service (NCSS) vice-president Anita Fam, who chaired the panel behind the blueprint, wrote in the foreword: "The steering committee was of the view that a detailed profiling of persons with disabilities in the country... was necessary for the effective planning and delivery of needed services in the disability sector today and in the future."

The figure for the student po- pulation came from the Ministry of Education.

The others are based on a random sample of 2,000 Singapore residents aged 18 and above surveyed by NCSS last year. They are self-reported prevalence rates, and include people who acquired disabilities due to accidents, illness or old age.

The previous Enabling Masterplan, for 2012 to this year, had the incidence - based on the use of services - for people aged below seven and those aged seven to 18. It also had figures for people aged above 18, but not specifically for the elderly.

There is no official central registry of people with disabilities, and experts in the social service sector usually rely on the Ministry of Social and Family Development's estimate of 3 per cent of the entire resident population having disabilities.

Different places define disability differently, but Singapore's figure is lower than prevalence rates in Hong Kong (9 per cent) and the United States (13 per cent). In all three places, the prevalence is higher in older age groups.

The World Health Organisation estimated in 2011 that 15 per cent of the world's population have disabilities.

Disabled People's Association vice-president Judy Wee did not find it surprising that 13.3 per cent of people aged 50 and above had disabilities, and welcomed the figures being made known.

"I think it shows that there are actually a lot of people who could benefit from efforts to make Singapore a more inclusive society," she said.

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