More social enterprises in Singapore are supporting people with disabilities

Social enterprise cafe Foreword Coffee has 32 employees across seven outlets, including 26 staff with disabilities. PHOTO: LIM WEI JIE

SINGAPORE - More social enterprises are supporting people with disabilities despite challenges, including those from customers they serve.

Children's enrichment centre School of Concepts, which has two branches, has 20 employees, including seven with disabilities.

Ms Mint Lim, the founder of the social enterprise, which provides literacy programmes for children under 12, said her staff include individuals who are deaf, have visual impairment, autism or intellectual disabilities.

"We interview them and hire them based on their strengths. After one year of training, they're productive and consistent, and contribute very well," said Ms Lim.

They come from schools run by the Association for Persons with Special Needs and take on roles such as a receptionist or work in telesales.

But these roles are not without issues.

Ms Lim related an incident at a School of Concepts centre in 2020.

A mother, upset that a classroom assistant had allowed her two-year-old child to use the bathroom without donning her shoes, yelled at the young woman.

But the classroom assistant has selective mutism, an anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations.

The mother eventually pulled her daughter out of the school, but the classroom assistant continues to work there.

Figures from the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise showed that the proportion of social enterprises supporting people with disabilities rose from 24 per cent in 2021 to 25.5 per cent in 2022.

There are now 93 social enterprises which employ, train or create products and services for people with disabilities, up from 90 in 2021.

Children's enrichment centre School of Concepts, has 20 employees, including seven with disabilities. PHOTO: MINT LIM

Mr Lim Wei Jie, who co-founded social enterprise cafe Foreword Coffee in 2017, said its seven outlets are run by 32 employees. The staff include 26 employees who are deaf, autistic, or have intellectual disabilities or cerebral palsy.

They were referred by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, a social service agency serving people with intellectual disabilities and their families, and the charity SPD, which helps people with disabilities.

Ms Lim and Mr Lim, who are not related, said new hires with disabilities often lack confidence.

"When some of them come in, they have low confidence. So we make it easy for them at first, so they can celebrate small wins and build confidence," said Mr Lim.

They learn by working at one workstation at a time, such as dishwashing or making espresso.

Mr Lim said employees who make it past the three-month probation mark usually stay with the cafe for about three years.

The Enabling Masterplan 2030 road map launched in August set an aspirational target of 40 per cent employment of people with disabilities by 2030, up from the current 30 per cent. This would mean placing about 10,000 more people with disabilities into jobs.

But the road map identified a gap as well - employers need to have the awareness, expertise and willingness to accommodate people with disabilities in the workplace.

Ms Lim said she does this by investing in soft skills training, and providing special needs employees with a mentor and a buddy. She also guides the team they work with, and allows time for them to build good work habits.

Mr Lim taps funds from disability agency SG Enable, such as the training grant and the job redesign grant, to procure coffee machines suited to the needs of people with disabilities who work as baristas.

Mr Lim said he offsets the higher manpower costs, from engaging job coaches for his special needs staff, with the low rental rates he secured from landlords who support the social cause. "Some outlets are not performing as well as they should be, and better-performing ones cover for them," he added.

Ms Lim said she channels 30 per cent of the business' revenue back into training the special needs staff.

Despite the challenges, both said they will continue with the ventures.

Ms Lim said of the social enterprise she set up in 2017: "Parents can see hope when our colleagues (with selective mutism) can actually speak and communicate eventually, and find a job.

"At the same time, our students learn empathy too when they help out our staff."

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