SINGAPORE — Many people with disabilities and those recovering from mental health conditions had cited the lack of social inclusion as a top concern, a National Council of Social Service (NCSS) study showed.
This first large-scale study on the quality of life of vulnerable groups here was done last year, surveying 2,500 persons with physical disabilities and those recovering from mental conditions, as well as seniors. Among those polled, leading an independent life was a top desire for them.
The results, released yesterday, showed that half of the respondents who have disabilities were not satisfied with their chances to get involved in social activities with friends. Half of them indicated as well that they lacked autonomy to make big decisions, or have control over their lives.
Six in 10 of them, one in 10 seniors, and more than one-third of those recovering from mental health conditions were also not satisfied with their chances to take part in community activities.
Mr Alan Tan, who had polio when he was three and gets around in a wheelchair or with a walking stick, was one of those who said that being able to lead an independent life is very important.
The 49-year-old refuses to let his condition dictate his employment status. He started his own business running an art gallery a decade ago, and has been offering graphic design services since he graduated from school in 1992.
“I’ve tried working for employers before for a few years, but found that I still like to work independently. I also prefer taking the train to taking the bus, because then, I would not need the bus driver to help me,” he said.
As for his social life, he hooked up with the Wheelchair Basketball Association through the Internet, and has been joining a group of members for basketball sessions for about a year now. “It has motivated me in various ways ... I can meet a lot of people, talk to them, and it makes me feel physically stronger,” he added.
For recovering mental-health patients, the study found that many of them wanted to work, and being socially included would have the greatest impact on improving their quality of life.
Ms Fazlin Abdullah, director of advocacy and research at NCSS, said: “We undertook this study because we wanted to hear from the vulnerable population about their needs. We needed to ask them not just for what they were diagnosed, or their disability, but (also to ask about the state of) their mental health.”
The study also sought to identify and improve the areas where they could “advance their lives”, based on what they wanted, she added.
On what can be done to help these vulnerable groups achieve their needs or aspirations, Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of advocacy and research at NCSS, said that opportunities should be created for role models to surface.
“If someone with one hand aspires to be a hawker, and he (makes) char kway teow (fried noodles) with only one hand, he will be a great role model for others. The focus will be on what he can do, instead of the fact that he has only one hand,” Mr Ee said.
Dr Terence Yeo, cluster director of social service agency AMKFSC Community Services, said while more employers these days are open to giving jobs to those with mental disabilities, many of these are still blue-collar jobs.
Dr Yeo, who counsels those with mental health problems, said: “Asking a person with a disability to go for a blue-collar job, such as being a waiter, decreases their self-esteem. For someone with a degree, it is still difficult for them to find an office job.”
He added that more efforts should go into raising greater awareness among employers on this matter.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser believes that social inclusion can happen by helping this community to be as self-reliant as possible, such as through skills training or job-matching.
“At the workplace, they should be assigned a mentor or buddy,” Associate Professor Tan said. This mentor or buddy should have a heart for people who are challenged in some ways, and “is willing to see the vulnerable person as possessing certain strengths and capabilities, rather than a problem that he or she has to deal with as part of his or her job”, he added.
It might even be necessary to re-design the job scope, working hours, and the physical environment to suit the person, he suggested.