Time to Commit to a National Target on Inclusive Employment

Published in the Straits Times on 6 Jul 2019, see article here.

None of the world-class management courses I’ve attended had prepared me for this. When I started Hush TeaBar — Singapore’s first silent tea bar to promote mental wellness and inclusion, I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park to have the entire team be completely made up of differently-abled* persons (Deaf and persons with/in-recovery from mental health conditions).

Today, the core team of 6 joined by another 20 Deaf persons on project basis and hearing volunteers, run all projects on their own — from securing to planning to execution — as a financially-viable social enterprise without daily oversight for the last 18 months. Together, they have brought the Hush Experience to over 7,000 workplace executives at more than 140 organisations and groups. Many people — including interested investors — kindly advised me in the early days that we could grow so much faster if we have a mixed profile employment policy. If we had done that, the team would not be able to affirm their abilities to themselves today and I wouldn’t be able to cite this as a clean proof of concept that disability is indeed a result of barriers to participation, it is not inherent in the persons.

The team’s small success is validated by a US study of firms that employ persons with disabilities (PWDs) actually outperforming others that did not, resulting in earnings up to 200 percent higher and profit margins rising 30 percent. In the same report, persons with disabilities were found to often demonstrate traits like creativity, resilience and problem-solving abilities that are valuable resources.

Why then do we still have only 8,600 PWDs who are employed in Singapore, out of an estimated population of 176,000, that is an employment-population ratio of 5%? I asked this parliamentary question last November which prompted a Straits Times report in February that revealed poorly we fare against OECD countries in 2017 — from 18.7 percent in the United States, 20 percent in Japan and over 40 percent for the likes of Britain, Germany, Australia and France.

While the World Health Organisation counts 15% of the world population as affected by a disability of some kind, the number is underestimated, especially due to the lack of uniformity of definition of the term among countries. Indeed, while countries like Canada keep the definition broad, referring to disability as any “severe and prolonged condition that inhibits a person from performing normal and routine daily activities”, Singapore keeps the types of disabilities confined to “physical, sensory, intellectual and developmental impairments”. This puts our population of PWDs at approximately 3% of resident population.

More worrisome is that mental illness seems to fall out of this definition in Singapore, especially given that one in seven Singaporeans experience mental health conditions. A person with a severe mental disorder experiences the same setbacks and barriers to participation. While an invisible disability, the consequences of mental conditions remain observable: difficulties with communication, self care and social skills. Should they not be classified as PWDs since they would require similar adjustments at the workplace?

In my humble opinion, this rate of 5% is dismal no matter how we look at it — even if we take into account the disparity in definition amongst countries. This is especially so considering we have well-meaning policies and programmes in place like (a) Open Door Programme by MSF and Workforce Singapore, that awards grants in job redesign and training to employers who hire PWDs and (b) Special Employment Credit by the Ministry of Manpower which provides 16% of monthly wage offsets for employment of PWDs. There are also agencies such as SG Enable that is tasked with improving employability of PWDs, and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep) that was established to promote inclusive employment including PWDs at the workplace.

We must take this issue of employment seriously — because if we are not doing enough for these fellow Singaporeans now, how much more marginalised would they be in the future economy that we are moving towards? How can we prepare them for the future of work?

I think first and foremost, we should establish and commit to a meaningful employment target for the differently-abled as a national vision (like the 2020 vision for female participation in statutory boards and public listed companies, or 30 by 30 vision for 30% home-grown food production by 2030). Could we triple the employment-population rate to 15% in five years? What would this translate to in hiring targets for employers? A national target galvanises the collective efforts of the public, private and people sectors; ensures adequate resources are allocated for the desired change to happen (destigmatisation, capability building, improvements to transport and infrastructure, further use of assistive technologies); and provides top of mind awareness across our social and economic policies. (I am not recommending a straight-out hiring quota by law because the jury is still out on the effectiveness of such a blunt policy tool to induce mindset shifts, and likely lead to ‘tokenism’ by employers.)

In this regard, I strongly encourage the Public Service as the largest employer in Singapore to lead by example in this national vision. Currently, only 300 PWDs are employed for a 145,000-strong service, a number that was given in response to another parliamentary question I asked.

Differently-abled Singaporeans must be part of our productive resources and the Singapore Core. The successful efforts by the Ministry of Manpower, Skillsfuture and WSG in preparing Singaporeans for the future of work with coaching, training and conversion programmes for the respective industry transformation maps must include PWDs and persons with mental health conditions. MOM’s holistic and rigorous approach should be leveraged to develop more talents amongst the differently-abled, including helping them to build confidence, to assure prospective employers of their readiness. Could the Open Door Programme and Special Employment Credit be enhanced with a graduated approach so that employers get further incentives and recognition for demonstrating investment in differently-abled employees, for example? Could we incentivise PWDs with incentives to upgrade themselves beyond SkillsFuture?

Increasing employment of PWDs goes beyond employment legislation. The private sector, with its ability to disrupt and solve complex problems, has a powerful role to play in addressing barriers to employment. Going beyond philanthropic gestures, businesses are realising the need to tap into the potential of the differently-abled. For example, SAP chooses to recognise the unique skills of people with autism and committed boldly to one percent of its global workforce being individuals on the autism spectrum. Closer to home, we have the Singapore Business Disability Network (SBNoD) that promotes disability inclusion. In May 2018, 25 C-Suite Leaders and I came together to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup to champion workplace mental health as a leadership priority, including inclusive employment practices for persons with and/or in-recovery from mental health conditions. I hope that we can see similar bold moves to inclusive employment targets by employers, in line with our national vision. Disability affects everyone — for e.g acquired through accidents and ageing and with mental health issues on the rise. Businesses that invest in creating supportive and accessible workplace environments are better positioned and attuned to attracting and retaining talents of all kinds for continued business growth.

Last but not least, I think we must invest in developing a pool of differently-abled persons to become experts in job design and workplace adjustments to advise and journey with employers. They should be telling us what their access needs are, not what we think they are. Based on my own experience, I do think employers need help in this regard for empowerment, beyond employment, of the differently-abled to be more independent, and integrated.

Stephen Hawkings famously said “disability need not be an obstacle to success”. I cannot tell you how proud I am of the team and how rewarding it has been to watch their growth and transformation over the years, in between significant challenges. It’s easy to see their disability before I see their talents just as it’s easy to prioritise business growth above their growth (it should be both). They must also step forward to claim and offer their strengths instead of self-stigmatising in their “deficiencies”, which is still a deep struggle for some. Job redesign and retooling of the work environment continue to happen in response to changes in business demands so we can continue to thrive.

Someone once said that there is no greater disability in a society than the inability to see a person as more. What we do not envision and strive towards intentionally, we merely stumble along. Increasing inclusive employment with a clear national vision and target is not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do — for smart businesses, and a smart nation.

*I prefer to use differently-abled to include persons with mental health conditions since PWDs do not include them in Singapore.

Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, Social Entrepreneur (including Founder of Hush TeaBar www.hushteabar.com) and Author of 50 Shades of Love (www.50shadesoflove.org)

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.