The experts' panel responsible for the latest Enabling Masterplan for the disabled has pointed to the need to coordinate support measures more closely by calling for the setting up of a dedicated disability office. That reflects a recognition that the diverse needs of the disabled - ranging from early intervention to education to employment - need to be treated holistically and in a way that puts the person affected at the centre.
It is important to think of this office as the body charged with easing the transitions across life stages, from school to work to starting a family and eventually to retirement, so that disabled persons have the opportunity to lead a full life. That is the social-mobility equivalent of the clearing of roadblocks that took place under previous Enabling Masterplans to turn this city-state barrier-free and ease physical movement. Such an office would need to be staffed by people from the relevant agencies looking after, for example, health, education, manpower and social service, so as to address problems of fragmentation. But whether they should not only coordinate but also exercise autonomy in some matters, as suggested by one panel member, is up for debate.
That Singapore is now placed to consider disability issues from a wider perspective, reflects the progress made in recent decades to make society more inclusive. Since the first Enabling Masterplan in 2007, government spending on disability issues, especially in areas such as transport and early intervention, has shot up. Much has also been done to provide educational pathways for the disabled. Last year, the Education Ministry announced that from 2019, education for children with moderate to severe special needs in publicly-funded schools would be compulsory. Much work remains to be done, however, in areas such as employment, in which only one in 10 persons with disabilities is able to find work in the open market. Public education remains necessary to help employers overcome biases against people with disabilities, as are outreach efforts to persuade the public of its role in helping the disabled integrate into and feel part of society.
As society ages, disability will become an everyday reality for a growing number of seniors and their families. Data shows that the prevalence of disability rises from 2.1 per cent for those aged seven to 18, to 13.3 per cent for people aged 50 and above. Disability is thus likely to enter most people's lives at one point or other. So the sooner structures are put in place to ensure quality of life enhancements for those affected, the better. The goal should be to enable those with disabilities to lead as independent and fulfilling a life as they can, given their limitations, and as far as possible, lighten the caregiving load on their family members and loved ones. The disabled count on the rest for these outcomes.