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SG+50: Future Trends 2065

I have a dream... of disabilities overcome in 2065

The writer conjures a world where assistive technology comes together to make daily life a seamless journey for the disabled

The day started normally enough.

My dictation software worked well as I replied to e-mail, and navigated the documents that I had to read and amend.

I then made my way to the elevator for the meeting. "Press Button Up." I smiled to myself as the button lit up in response to my voice command while I waited for the elevator. This never fails to impress the kids. Of course, the elevator doesn't respond to their voices. But they don't know why.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The door opened, and as always, there were fellow sojourners in the elevator. As soon as they saw me, they stepped to the side of the elevator and made room for me . Unlike in the days when I was younger, I didn't even have to ask! They were friendly, but not patronising.

I got out at the top floor where the conference huddle was to be held. Moving past the conference room sensor doors, I got to work.

"Function: on-screen presentation", and as the lights in the conference room turn on with different intensities suitable to note-taking and on-screen presentation, and the blinds activate, I waited while the projector connected with my laptop. With another voice command, I navigated to the documentation for projection. I am ready.

Waiting for my workmates, I mused about how far we have come.

We are a motley bunch - my workmates and I: we have different types of abilities and disabilities. One has hearing impairment, another with total visual impairment, and one who constantly drifts from discussions and issues at hand (although I must admit that, despite occasional roll-your-eyes comments, he frequently contributes fresh perspectives). Another wears glasses, while two others use contact lenses, and yet another watches his weight.

Oh, by the way, I use a wheelchair. But, we work well as a team.

At meetings, we rotate note-taking. Our note-taker for the day is the one with visual impairment. We love the notes he takes because they are succinct and well organised, which he modestly attributes to his fancy note-taking device that converts speech to summarised text.

It wasn't always this way.

Just two decades ago, there were great challenges for persons with disabilities in employment and work internships.

While mainstream schools began to cater to students with disabilities, and special schools were developed to empower students with intellectual disabilities, the gap between school and work remained huge. Despite the work of social service organisations and government assistance, it was difficult to obtain sufficient resources to put internship programmes for students with disabilities into full drive.

Today, in 2065, we are fortunate that persons with disabilities are employed, on merit, and that public and private organisations no longer view job re-design and workplace accommodation as factors weighing against the employment of persons with disabilities.

In the last decade, the rapid advance in medical technology has resulted in the substantial mitigation of physical and sensory impairments within the physical environment in which we live.

The huddle today would be my last, before I begin my extended medical leave for "transformation".

HEALTH AT HOME

Gone are the days of exoskeletal robotic arms and legs for persons with limb disabilities, something which I have resisted for the longest of time, preferring my powered wheelchair.

I will be going in for the Nano-neuro nodal, Triple-N, procedure, in which nano-neuro nodes will be micro-surgically guided along my nervous system (to be finally attached to my nerves) to conduct impulses from the brain to my muscles to stimulate muscle development, and ultimately overcome my limb impairments to achieve full mobility.

This procedure has to date been successfully executed for a few hundred persons with mobility challenges in Singapore, and I am looking forward to being able to finally "stand on my own two feet".

I can't wait for the day when we can mitigate all impairments. But, what matters most must be the openness of the hearts and minds of people within the community to accept each of us for our different abilities and disabilities.

The meeting went well, and I returned to my own office.

A buzz interrupted my thoughts, and a mini-window appeared on my laptop monitor.

Ah - time to check on Mum and Dad. Good: Dad is exercising, under the supervision of a therapist, remotely via another monitor. And Mum's… watching the Taiwanese serial, again!

I turned on the video-phone and chatted to them. They were fine.

As I returned to work, getting engrossed in drafting replies to e-mail, a sudden loud and urgent buzz sounded, as the mini-window appeared on my laptop monitor, with a blinking red light at the top right-hand corner.

Oh no! Mum is on the bed with paramedics attending to her. Dad came to the camera, and explained that Mum had a sudden fainting spell.

It was picked up by the Smart Medical System (all homes with elderly persons and persons with medical conditions have it), which immediately activated the paramedics, who arrived within minutes and revived her. I waited till the paramedics were done, when they assured me that all was well. I decided to call it a day. I placed my office on my lap (yup, my laptop) and made my way to my car in the basement.

MOBILITY ON WHEELS

When I was in university, it was impossible to get a driving licence because the nature of my disability prevented me from handling a conventional modified vehicle. I could not steer the car, get in and out of a car on my own, stow my wheelchair, or handle the foot pedals.

So, I spent a quarter of a century being hoisted in and out of cars (not very dignifying, if I may say), physically stressing friends and family members, and being completely dependent for my travel needs.

Thankfully, the authorities now allow modification of vehicles to suit the abilities of persons with disabilities, and the elderly. I can now travel independently, and be driver to my aged parents, and to those around me with transport needs. This enlightened direction of the authorities has helped the country save substantial sums of money in addressing transport needs of persons with functional disabilities, whilst accumulating social capital at the same time.

We have a choice of driverless cars, aided-driving cars, and cars that we can modify according to our preferences, subject to safety requirements. I opted for an aided-driving car, for a sense of control. I am pretty sure I will use the same car, even after my Triple-N. In this day and age, you don't need to have a disability to drive such cars.

"Driver boarding." Immediately, the driver's door opened, and a transfer board extended to connect the driver's seat with my wheelchair. I slid on the transfer board and eased myself into the driver's seat. The board retracted, while robotic extensions from the car collapsed my wheelchair and guided it into the boot to be stowed away. All done and retracted, the driver's door closed. "Start engine, go home."

As I approached the car park in my housing estate, I was thankful to find a parking space from which I can alight. Thankful, not because it is difficult to find such parking spaces, but because it took us a long time to persuade the community that such spaces are necessary. Thankful because our community now accepts such parking spaces, which have to be wider than normal, and in accessible spots, as necessary for the smooth functioning of society.

I was distracted by some kids in the playground on my way to the elevator, until I heard a familiar voice caution, "hey, watch where you're going!" I stopped my wheelchair immediately and turned around. It was my neighbour, Alice, who is visually impaired, but could see more than I did, with her visual sensor-aided visor. I thanked her and we went up to our respective apartments.

ROBOTICS AT HOME

At the door of my unit, voice activation gave me access. Mum and Dad were watching the television, as Robin vacuumed the floor in the living room. Why was Robin working in the living room? The kitchen didn't look ready for dinner. Hmm. I should call the helpdesk.

Dad explained that due to mum's incident in the afternoon, he had changed Robin's schedule (to allow the paramedics room to work), only to find thereafter that he could not locate the manual to re-activate Robin. He had only just managed to "wake up Robin" who proceeded to do the vacuuming. Such are the birth pains of in-home robotics.

No matter, dinner is only a phone call away. It may just have been the three of us, but with Mum's early evening incident fresh in our minds, it was one of the most meaningful dinners we had in a long time.

"Go, take your shower now."

No, that's not a command to a robot, but mum's command to me.

Some things never change. That's fine. With a fully enabled bathroom, I can shower independently and do many things independently. Hey, with a hoist, I can even get in and out of bed on my own. And in case you think that my room looks like a robotics factory, you're wrong. There is something called "assistive technology".

Under the Smart Nation project, the government built infrastructure to enable homes and workplaces, and empower people. It cost a lot in the beginning, took a long time in designing, debating, designing again, debating again, but it finally worked. It worked because the government (yes, every ministry) believed in it.

The professionals in the design and building teams believed in it. The people in the community contributed feedback, believing that ultimately it would work for the good of the whole community. Everyone owned it. The collective faith of all the people made it work.

The Smart Nation project has saved us billions of dollars in patchwork infrastructure to stop gaps, reduced our reliance on human labour in domestic activities, and reduced the burden on caregivers.

All in all, we have become a community more closely-knit, more respecting of each other, because we have empowered the people within our community to lead lives as independently as possible, and to contribute as much as possible back to the community.

The empowerment achieved through Smart Nation, ultimately built a nation.

• Chia Yong Yong was a nominated MP from Aug 2014 till August 2015 (when Parliament was dissolved for the General election) and the first wheelchair-using person to become a Member of Parliament. 

A lawyer by profession, she is active in the disabled community, serving as President of SPD (formerly known as Society for the Physically Disabled) since 2008.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2015, with the headline 'I have a dream... of disabilities overcome in 2065'. Print Edition | Subscribe