Interaction key to inclusiveness

A priority queue for commuters with special needs.PHOTO: ST FILE

A five-year public education campaign costing $5 million was launched last week to raise awareness of disability issues and promote inclusion here.

It comes after the recent release of several large-scale surveys that confirm what many already suspect: Singapore is not as inclusive a society as people think it is or would like it to be.

Though the word "inclusion" has been a term bandied about in many official speeches and parliamentary debates, a Lien Foundation survey that polled 1,000 found that people support the idea of inclusion but do not walk the talk.

More specifically, only half of the parents polled were comfortable with having special needs children sitting next to their own children in class.

Equally disheartening is the picture painted by a survey done by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). Of the 1,400 people polled, only 3 per cent would be comfortable marrying someone with a disability, and just one-third are fine with being close friends with a person with disabilities.

Inclusion means ensuring everyone, including those with disabilities, is given opportunities to realise his potential in the same environment. It is about whether different people can study together, marry each other or confide in one another.

Can a public education campaign change attitudes? The first time the NCSS did a campaign on disability issues was in 1994 and it has continued doing so every few years. Yet, the latest survey results show that sitting next to a child with special needs is still as undesirable to some parents as, perhaps, being next to someone with an infectious disease.

Public education efforts are vital but they should focus on promoting sustained interaction between people with and without disabilities.

These groups are still not mixing. Segregation starts early: Most of the children with special needs who receive therapy are not attending pre-school at all. At work, many people who are disabled are relegated to service-related, back-end jobs that keep them out of sight.

Mindsets can change if people with disabilities are also our friends or colleagues.

Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2016, with the headline 'Interaction key to inclusiveness'. Subscribe