Opening career paths for the disabled

SMU economics student Alister Ong, 22, has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair. He is an intern at the Ministry of National Development. He says his work experience has given him confidence and an idea of what to expect from working life.
SMU economics student Alister Ong, 22, has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair. He is an intern at the Ministry of National Development. He says his work experience has given him confidence and an idea of what to expect from working life.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SG Enable's internship placement programme has helped 68 tertiary students since 2013

Just like his peers, undergraduate Alister Ong has been doing summer internships every year, though he needs help with lift buttons and the office entry system because they are literally out of his reach. The 22-year-old economics student at Singapore Management University (SMU) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair.

"When people go into the lift with me, I'll ask them to help me press the button," said Mr Ong, who works in a 21st-floor office at the Ministry of National Development (MND).

"The security guard helps me as well. I can also call my colleagues for help. It's no issue, there are ways to work around it."

This is his third internship after stints at Deutsche Bank, where he was placed by disability support agency SG Enable, and consulting firm Accenture.

The work experience he has gained has given him confidence and a better inkling of what to expect from working life when he graduates next year.

HELP AT HAND

The security guard helps me as well. I can also call my colleagues for help. It's no issue, there are ways to work around it.

UNDERGRADUATE ALISTER ONG, on the challenges he faces in getting around.

This is what SG Enable set out to do when it launched this internship placement programme for tertiary students with disabilities in December 2013.

The agency matches each student with a company based on his or her preference, supports the student and employer during interview processes, and helps the employer with integration needs, such as physical modifications to the workplace.

Deutsche Bank, for example, has been working with SG Enable for three years and has made modifications such as changing the heavy doors to automated ones for easy wheelchair-user access.

Since 2013, SG Enable has placed 68 tertiary students with disabilities in internships. As of this month, 24 have been placed with 16 employers - six times the number of interns placed when the programme first started.

Deutsche Bank's current intern, Mr Chen Jiajun, who recently graduated from Nanyang Technological University, suffers from poor vision, which he compensated for in his school years by using microbinoculars and having his exam scripts printed on A3 paper. This is his first internship.

"This programme has really helped open doors for me to consider a career in banking and finance. The people here are very friendly and approachable," he said.

While the tertiary students have picked up skills and gained confidence, their colleagues and supervisors also had something to learn.

Mr Tang Liheng, deputy director at MND's eco-city project office where Mr Ong is interning, has started noticing the little things that can get in the way of a person with physical disabilities.

"We tried to go for lunch in Tanjong Pagar Road. After a while, we realised we couldn't make it because of the steps along the five- foot-way," said Mr Tang.

"These are things that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't met him. It's only when you start talking to him and hearing his stories that you know how he has to adjust his lifestyle...

"I think there are certain gaps to be filled for people with mobility problems like him."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2016, with the headline 'Opening career paths for the disabled'. Print Edition | Subscribe