In 2005, Michael Quek’s world fell apart. The self-employed electrician and air-con installer suffered a stroke, which left him wheelchair-dependent. While it may seem natural to admit defeat, Michael’s positive outlook enabled him to look beyond his disability.
After three years focused on his recovery, he tried his hand at an office job, but it did not suit him. So he took up a multimedia course at SPD, a local charity that helps people with disabilities to maximise their potential and integrate them into society.
Michael’s life improved when SPD recommended him to Richardo Chua, the group managing director of Adrenalin Group, an event management company that champions an inclusive workplace.
Before he set up Adrenalin, Richardo worked at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), which “opened my eyes to social enterprise”. He says: “Two things are close to my heart — bringing great events to life and helping the community.”
At Adrenalin, 30 per cent of the employees have disabilities. Hiring persons with disabilities is a policy Richardo instituted from Day 1, and “it is embedded in us”. But Richardo looks forward to the day when hiring persons with disabilities is not seen as something special, but just hiring the right person for the job. “From our perspective, it’s normal.”
There has been a mindset shift, and more companies are willing to promote inclusive workplaces. It helps that the prevailing trend is “working with a purpose”. Young people are not working just for the money, they want the organisation to also do its part for the community.
But more awareness needs to be built, says Richardo. He cites the See The True Me campaign, organised by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), as a step in the right direction to help remove the perception that persons with disabilities cannot be as good at their job as their able-bodied colleagues.
From beneficiary to contributor
Michael, whom Richardo calls a “poster boy and ambassador” for his company, has been working with Adrenalin for over eight years. He has moved up from being a graphic designer to a photo editor. His graphic design training has come in handy in photo booth management, and he has also picked up communication skills to deal with clients.
“Disabled doesn’t mean unable,” says Michael, who loves his job at Adrenalin. “It’s a young company, so I feel young,” he adds in jest. His outgoing nature has made him a mentor to new hires, as he helps them settle in.
Michael is also doing his bit to pay it forward, working with the Handicapped Welfare Association and the Singapore National Stroke Association. He talks to stroke patients on how to overcome their condition and change their way of life. He was even invited to Tan Tock Seng Hospital to talk to stroke survivors.
Richardo is proud of Michael’s efforts. “We just gave him the opportunity. Watching him go from being a beneficiary to a contributor, a leader and mentor in his community has been by far the most inspiring to me.”
A ‘necessary’ cost
Richardo agrees that there is a real cost to running an inclusive organisation, including redesigning the workplace, acquiring the necessary software, and training employees with disabilities. But it is a “cost necessary to fulfil our mission”.
He stresses: “It’s a two-way street – employers can do more, but persons with special needs can also do their part.”
While he cannot employ every special-needs person referred to him, Richardo has a 100 per cent interview policy – by speaking with every applicant, he reckons that at the very least he is imparting interview skills that they will find useful in the future.
He also creates roles when possible. For instance, after interviewing a man with a learning disability who had studied fine arts and digital media, Richardo got him to do portraits for the employees to use on their name cards.
In another scenario, a man with special needs was awarded an internship. Despite Richardo’s initial misgivings, his staff urged him to give the youngster a chance. “That was when I knew the message of inclusivity had sunk in among my staff,” he says.
Making a difference
Every organisation must find a way to do good while making money and every company achieves its corporate social responsibility goals differently. It is just a matter of finding what suits an organisation.
Local company LiHO TEA plans to hire more persons with disabilities, providing them with a career path. It is among NCSS’ 10 partners that are supporting inclusivity in line with the See The True Me campaign. LiHO TEA is working with The Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) for its concept store at Cathay Cineleisure. Its goal is to have the store entirely managed by persons with special needs by next year. It will train them to become team leaders and supervisors, and eventually take over the running of the store.
Dean Koh, operations director of Royal T Group says: “When NCSS approached us, we felt it was a very meaningful campaign (See The True Me). Being a Singaporean brand, we also want to give back to society and be an inclusive company that promotes everyone.”
Like Adrenalin, LiHO TEA will work towards having about 30 per cent of its staff strength to be made up of persons with disabilities. “We want them to develop their skill-sets based on their abilities,” adds Dean.
The company will consult SADeaf and the special-needs employees in creating a comfortable working environment and customise a training programme that will help them to grow and progress.
“We would love to assess the potential of the candidate we hire and if they are willing to stay with us, we can groom them to succeed,” says Dean.