Self-employed people with disabilities turn to tech to get by

Mr Wesley Wee used to sell tissue in Orchard Road. He now does live streams on Facebook almost every day to sell his wares. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WESLEY WEE
Mr Wesley Wee used to sell tissue in Orchard Road. He now does live streams on Facebook almost every day to sell his wares. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WESLEY WEE

Among those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, some people with disabilities seem particularly hard hit.

Mr Wesley Wee, 41, who was born with cerebral palsy, had for years been selling packets of tissue from his wheelchair in Orchard Road.

He earned just enough to get by every month, and his finances were badly hit when he could not leave his flat because of the circuit breaker measures.

He is among those who used to eke out a meagre living by plying their wares on the streets, but now find it much harder to make ends meet.

To tide themselves over the crisis, they are now selling items through networking platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram, or kick-starting e-commerce careers on live-streaming platforms.

Mr Wee was one of the first few individuals with cerebral palsy in Singapore to get into the live-streaming e-commerce business. He now does live streams on Facebook almost every day to sell T-shirts he designs himself, as well as household items. He tries his best to speak to his audience despite his severe speech impairment. His 49-year-old wife, Madam Lorena Buan, a housewife, helps him.

Despite having around 500 views each session, Mr Wee said he gets very few actual customers. Some netizens also write nasty comments or send angry, frowning emojis.

"Thankfully, now we have established a good customer base. I'm not here to beg for money and I'm really serious about starting and conducting an honest business," he said.

Madam Shirley Goh, 80, was paralysed from the waist down after a bad fall three years ago. She used to peddle handmade beaded keychains for $5 each from her wheelchair at various malls in the east, making around $10 a day.

Just a month ago, she was using her smartphone only for making calls. But she now uses it in more savvy ways, spending more than 10 hours a day sending WhatsApp messages with pictures of the keychains to her friends, hoping they will forward her messages to others.

She said: "I only make $8 a day on average now after postage, and it is nowhere near enough to get by. But I do have a little bit of savings from the years I worked as a toilet cleaner until my fall, so I am surviving."


Dr Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills, executive director at the Disabled People's Association (DPA), told The Straits Times that self-employed people with disabilities are struggling to adapt to the current situation, as some have had to scale down what work they can do, or stop work completely.

She added that some DPA members are currently relying on the Ministry of Manpower's enhanced Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme or have applied for the Temporary Relief Fund.

"We ask employers to continue to believe in their employees with disabilities and, if they have engaged persons with disabilities for freelance work, to reschedule rather than cancel the projects - as it is more important than ever for persons with disabilities to have an income and remain as independent as possible in a time when we try to go out only when necessary."

The Ministry of Social and Family Development has also put in place other measures to support people with disabilities - these individuals and their employers can tap the Covid-19 Support Grant and enhanced Jobs Support Scheme.

Meanwhile, work preparatory initiatives like internships, mentorships, career coaching services and CV (curriculum vitae) clinics have also been taken online, as job support for people with disabilities has continued via e-mail, phone calls and text messages.

But with a working e-commerce set-up in place, Mr Wee plans to keep going with his e-commerce business even after the coronavirus pandemic is over, by splitting his time between live-streaming and selling tissue paper in Orchard Road to supplement his income. He has not resumed sales at physical locations.

"I'm happy that now I have another source of income, and a business of my own," he said.

Cheryl Teh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2020, with the headline 'Self-employed people with disabilities turn to tech to get by'. Subscribe