Social enterprise Wise hires people with disabilities to design and sell bags

Wise hires those with disabilities as sales staff and designers for its fashion line

When Ms Mary Kaw received her first payslip at the age of 54 two years ago, she broke down and cried.

She said: "I didn't think anyone would employ me because of my weak hands and bad English. But when I got the pay, I was so touched."

Ms Kaw, 56, was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that weakens the muscles. She has lived in the Singapore Cheshire Home for the disabled in Serangoon Garden Way for 50 years, and has never been to school.

She is one of five people with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, now employed as sales staff at fashion brand Flax, which makes bags, pouches and laptop cases.

The brand, started in January last year by Wise - a social enterprise owned by 30 shareholders - seeks to provide employment for the disabled or socially disadvantaged.

Wise has also employed six people from the Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore as designers to create leather handbags for its main product line.

Each bag costs about $400 and can take up to six months to produce. The bags are made with leather that has been tanned with non-polluting chemicals .

Wise general manager Ernest Kong said it seeks to provide a platform for its designers who might have immense creative talent but no appropriate avenue to develop it due to their disability.

Bag designer Kelvin Yong, 27, is one of them. "I was inspired by my mother, who designs for clothing suppliers," said Mr Yong, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. He gets about $500 a month - including royalties - from the sale of his bags.

He said: "With this opportunity, even if I am disabled, I can still pursue my dream. I want to become a famous bag designer one day, on a par with brands like Prada and Hermes, whose designs I admire."

Using sketches by their design teacher, the youth designers decide on details such as zips, umbrella holders and different types of leather for each bag. Their final designs are then sent to Italy and China for production. The bags are sold at the brand's showroom in Paya Lebar, as well as online.

Wise has also sent its sales staff for training at the Singapore Institute of Retail Studies. When needed, they take practical tests instead of written ones as most of them, like Ms Kaw, have difficulty writing due to their disabilities.

As most of the staff cannot reach up from their motorised wheelchairs, customers have to take the bags themselves from the shelves; Ms Kaw says that, so far, they have all been very understanding.

Like the other sales staff, she works in the showroom twice a week in four-hour shifts alongside her husband, Mr Jason Chan, 62 - a polio victim - and earns $5 an hour.

The bags have also been sold at pop-up events at firms such as Keppel Corporation, GlaxoSmithKline and Shell.

Wise hopes to break even this year, said Mr Kong, who added that about 200 bags were sold in the past year. He said it hopes to double the number of employees in the next three years.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline Social enterprise Wise hires people with disabilities to design and sell bags. Subscribe