Singapore’s Definition of ‘Disability’ for Social Policies

Anthea Indira Ong
4 min readJul 9, 2019

Parliamentary Question, 8 July 2019

Ms Anthea Ong asked Mr Desmond Lee, the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) what is the official definition of “disability” used in our social policies; (b) how does this definition compare to the definition under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments); © when was our definition stipulated, and whether it is time for a review; and (d) what is the reason for mental disorders to be excluded from this definition of disability for social support and employment schemes.

Mr Desmond Lee: The Enabling Masterplans define “persons with disability” as those with substantially reduced prospects of securing, retaining places and advancing in education and training institutions, employment and recreation, due to physical, intellectual, and sensory impairments, as well as developmental needs including Autism Spectrum Disorder. This definition was endorsed in 2004 by the first Enabling Masterplan Steering Committee, comprising representatives1 of the disability sector, the private sector and the public sector. Our disability schemes and services are guided by this definition.

In determining if an individual’s conditions fall within the disability criteria, medical assessments and examinations of the socio-functional limitations faced by persons with disability are done by medical professionals or suitable non-medical professionals such as therapists. The Steering Committee in 2004 assessed that the medical diagnosis ensured rigour in determining what constituted a disability, while the socio-functional examination ensured that economic, environmental and cultural barriers were also taken into account.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities does not explicitly define which conditions constitute a disability, but notes that persons with disability include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

In line with the Convention, disability schemes and services in Singapore are designed to facilitate the participation of individuals with hearing impairment and visual impairment conditions, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder — a type of mental disorder, as well as children with developmental needs, in areas such as education, transport, employment, training, recreation and care, such that they are recognised, empowered and given every opportunity to be integral and contributing members of society.

Disability schemes and services do not comprehensively target individuals witwith mental health conditions as the Government’s support for this group is focused on their recovery and reintegration into society. The Government has adopted a comprehensive and multi-pronged approach in this regard. Through the National Mental Health Blueprint and the Community Mental Health Masterplan, the Ministry of Health has enhanced mental health promotion and upstream prevention; improved early detection, intervention, and disease management; and adopted a collective front to better integrate health, social and community support.

Jobseekers with mental health conditions who require employment assistance can approach the Job Club under the Institute of Mental Health, as well as the Singapore Anglican Community Services’ Employment Support Services. They can also tap on the employment support programmes under Workforce Singapore’s Adapt and Grow initiative. The Institute of Mental Health and NCSS have also developed a Peer Support Specialist programme where persons in recovery can be trained and employed as Peer Support Specialists to provide support to other persons with mental health conditions. In addition, the Health Promotion Board provides management training workshops that equip managers and HR personnel with the skills to foster a supportive workplace environment, recognise common mental health issues, and encourage help-seeking behaviour.

While our current policies and definitions have served us well thus far, the Government will continue to review the reach and efficacy of our policies and services as we work with the disability sector to strengthen support for persons with disability under the Enabling Masterplan.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).