Enabling people with disabilities

Cooped up at home no more: Adults with disabilities get better access to support

Mr Khoo You Seng and his mother, Madam Lim Chiu Tan, at Thye Hua Kwan Bedok Radiance Senior Activity Centre last month. Mr Khoo goes there three times a week.
Mr Khoo You Seng and his mother, Madam Lim Chiu Tan, at Thye Hua Kwan Bedok Radiance Senior Activity Centre last month. Mr Khoo goes there three times a week.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Adults with disabilities get better access to support; more help is in the pipeline

The world used to be a much smaller place for Mr Khoo You Seng, 53.

Severely intellectually disabled and partially blind after a bout of high fever when he was a baby, he has never attended school.

He spent his life within the confines of the one-room Housing Board rental flat where he lives with his elderly mother and older brother.

But this changed in 2013, when staff from the Thye Hua Kwan (THK) Bedok Radiance Senior Activity Centre chanced upon him while reaching out to residents in the neighbourhood. At that time, he was malnourished and uncommunicative and hiding behind his mother, Madam Lim Chiu Tan.

Says 94-year-old Madam Lim in Hokkien, recounting those days: "He did not know anything, did not do anything at home and did not really talk."

Life is much better now for Ah Seng, as Mr Khoo is fondly called. He is no longer cooped up at home,is better fed and more sociable. He looks forward to going to the THK centre thrice a week. There he interacts with others - both able-bodied senior citizens and adults with disabilities like himself - and he is kept engaged through a host of activities and outings.


Ah Seng's story is not unusual, and for years, adults with disabilities have often languished at home. Even among those who were schooled when they were young, many lapsed into a routine of staying at home after graduation as they were unable to work.

But things have changed over the past decade as the Government drives a push to improve the lives of disabled adults, amid the effort to build a more inclusive society.

  • Getting jobs

  • A slew of initiatives has been introduced by the Government in recent years to help people with disabilities join or stay in the workforce. They include:

    •A school-to-work transition programme. This provides customised training and work options for students in special education schools who have the potential to work.

    •The Open Door Programme subsidises employer's efforts to hire and integrate people with disabilities. It includes subsidising apprenticeships, redesigning jobs and staff training.

    •Workfare Income Supplement and Workfare Training Support are also extended to people with disabilities. In 2012, the Workfare Income Supplement was extended to low-wage disabled workers below the eligibility age of 35. Eligible workers who earn up to $2,000 a month get cash payouts and Central Provident Fund contributions from the Government.

    •Younger workers with disabilities will also get more funding to upgrade their skills under the Workfare Training Support Scheme, which previously included only those aged 35 and older prior to this year. Now it includes all low-wage workers with disabilities.

    •SG Enable and its partners provide post-placement job support to help staff with disabilities integrate into their new workplace. SG Enable is a non-profit organisation set up by the Ministry of Social and Family Development in 2013.

    Theresa Tan

What plans are in the pipeline? Why this new emphasis on helping adults with disabilities? Which areas can be improved? The Sunday Times reports.


During the Budget debate in March, several initiatives were announced by Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan- Jin to improve the lives of this group, from boosting their employment prospects to providing more support to caregivers.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) tells The Sunday Times that three new homes for adults with disabilities will be set up in the next three years, which can accommodate 700 more residents.

This will add to the existing eight homes that house some 900 adults who may not have anyone to care for them. The average wait for a place in a home now ranges from six to nine months, says the MSF.

The ministry also plans to increase the number of places in day activity centres - which provide care and skills training to disabled adults during the day - from over 1,300 now to 1,800 by next year .

And it is working with the Health Ministry (MOH) to explore areas of cooperation in the healthcare and social sectors to better serve people with disabilities.

Both ministries will work with home care service providers to look into how they can expand their services to care for ageing people with disabilities who live at home. The MSF is having discussions with MOH about jointly developing capability and sharing resources, such as manpower, across sectors.


Education and support services for people with disabilities have taken a leap forward since the First Enabling Masterplan, a national blueprint for disability policies and programmes, was launched in 2007.

The masterplans - there have been three so far - set out Singapore's vision to make the country a better place for those with disabilities, and propose ways to achieve this. Before that, services for people with disabilities were largely initiated by charities, were a lot more piecemeal and had much less resources.

Observers say this concerted push happened with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's pledge to build an inclusive society after he took office in 2004.

Since then, the Government has pumped in a lot more resources and has been driving the development of these new services.

Most of these resources for disability services in the past decade went towards early intervention services and special education for children, as those needs were the most pressing, says the chairman of the Third Enabling Masterplan, Ms Anita Fam.

"For adults with disabilities, the work is in its early days, but it is really taking off now. And a lot more has to be done," she adds.

Observers agree that there is a growing desire among Singaporeans to empower those with disabilities and to provide opportunities for them to become integral and contributing members of society.

It is not just compassion driving this development, but also practical concerns.

With medical advances, people with disabilities are living longer lives. Their parents are also ageing, and smaller families means that there may not be a loved one able or willing to look after them.

Then, there is the growing number of children diagnosed with developmental problems such as autism and speech and language delays.

About 4,000 pre-schoolers were diagnosed with developmental problems such as autism and speech and language delays in 2015 at KK Women's and Children's Hospital and the National University Hospital, a 60 per cent jump from 2010.

An estimated 3.4 per cent of the resident population aged between 18 and 49 have disabilities, according to a National Council of Social Service survey of 2,000 people who were randomly sampled.

The number rises to 13.3 per cent for those aged 50 and older. As one ages, the chances of becoming disabled increase through stroke and other illnesses.

But SPD, a charity serving those with disabilities, is also seeing younger Singaporeans in their 30s and 40s becoming paralysed after a stroke or road accident.


In 2014, SPD started a programme to help this group rejoin the workforce through intensive therapy, job matching and job support services. It had about 100 clients on this programme last year, and about half of them were able to find work, a figure which it finds "very encouraging".

Its executive director, Mr Abhimanyau Pal, says: "In the past, employers thought disabled meant they could not be productive. But now, they are more open about hiring them."

Without doubt, government incentives have played a big part in boosting their employability, those interviewed say.

For example, the Special Employment Credit was introduced in 2012 to support firms that hire people with disabilities earning $4,000 and below a month. The Government will subsidise up to 16 per cent of the disabled employee's wages, up to $240 a month.

From the time the scheme was started until December last year, $59 million in credit has been given to employers of about 10,000 people with disabilities.

Monetary carrots aside, a lot more has been done to train, match to jobs and support persons with disabilities in the workplace.

SG Enable, a non-profit agency set up by the MSF in 2013, has placed more than 1,200 people with disabilities in jobs in the past three years. They found work in the retail, food and beverage, IT and other sectors.

Those in the resident workforce now make up 0.6 per cent, or about 12,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents.

In the past five years, new initiatives have also been started for adults with disabilities.

For example, in 2013, the Drop-In Disability Programme, which Ah Seng attends, was piloted in four senior activity centres run by THK. The service is free for clients.

A year later, the MSF piloted a home-based care service to bring therapy and personal care to the home-bound who are unable to use centre-based services due to the severity of their disability.


But what is still lacking is the number of places in homes for adults with disabilities who need long-term care, those interviewed say.

Their parents may be dead, or too old and frail to care for them and their siblings cannot help.

To that end, the additional three homes which will be built in the next three years will be a boon.

In Sengkang, St Andrew's Autism Centre is now building Singapore's first home for people with autism. It is one of the three new homes coming up. This one is expected to be ready by 2019 and can house up to 200 residents.

THK told The Sunday Times it is also opening a new home in Sembawang, although it declined to give more details. Details of the third home are not available yet.

Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua, who is also president of the Autism Resource Centre (ARC), a charity, says: "We have to think out of the box when it comes to services. Can we explore new models for residential living, instead of the current one where homes (for persons with disabilities) are segregated from the community?"

She cites examples overseas where groups of adults with disabilities live in public housing and are given the necessary supervision and support. Or another model in Boston, in the United States, where she saw families band together to lease a house for their children and hire carers and services for them.

Ms Phua says the ARC hopes to work with the Government and interested parties to develop a continuum of residential living models, including one where persons with disabilities can live in HDB flats and be given supervision and support.

With land and manpower constraints, there are limits to the number of new homes that can be built, masterplan chairman Ms Fam points out.

She says another area that has to grow is home-based services to support the home-bound, so that they can continue to live at home for as long as possible.

For Ah Seng, his life is happier with all the outings and friends he made at the THK centre. But his frail and ageing mother worries about what will happen to him after she dies.

"My three other children do not earn much and they have their own families. Who will take care of him?" she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Cooped up at home no more'. Print Edition | Subscribe