In this Explainer, find out...
Why is it important to include Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) in the workforce?
How does the Enabling Masterplan 2030 intend to promote inclusive employment of PWDs?
What are some obstacles hindering the integration of PWDs into the workforce – and how can they be overcome?
In August 2023, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong spoke at the Inclusive Business Forum about the importance of giving employment opportunities to people with disabilities who want to work.¹ “As we look to the future, what is clear is that the continued success of Singapore will rely not just on how much economic growth we (Singapore businesses) can generate, but also how inclusive we can become as a society.” What does fostering an inclusive workforce entail? Does ensuring the meaningful employment of all – irrespective of skill, ability and background signify more than just ‘smart business tactics’? How exactly will this drive Singapore’s progress?
Further, with the accelerating pace of economic and technological change in the nature of work, there is a danger that PWDs will be left behind. Enhancing care and support for PWDs was thus one of the key themes emerging from the year-long Forward Singapore exercise.² This includes helping PWDs maximise available opportunities for personal growth, learning and employment, and enabling them to actively participate in community life.
In this Policy Explainer, we discuss the importance of integrating PWDs into the workforce, future plans, possible challenges, and how to better accommodate and support PWDs as a society.
Who are The Disabled?
Before we begin to provide support to PWDs, it is important that we first identify them. The phrase ‘Not every disability is visible’ is often heard and definitions of disabilities vary widely among countries.
Singapore’s first Enabling Masterplan in 2007 (EMP1) provides a framework for identifying and classifying PWDs. According to EMP1, PWDs are defined as those whose prospects of securing, retaining places and advancing in education and training institutions, employment and recreation as equal members of the community are substantially reduced, owing to having one or more disabilities from four categories: physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities as well as autism.³
SG Enable gives the official definitions for these disabilities:⁴
Physical Disabilities: The total or partial loss of bodily functions such as the ability to walk or talk, or a total or partial loss of a part of the body. These can be due to causes from birth or result from serious illnesses or injury.
2. Sensory Disabilities: These tend to comprise visual impairment or deafness/hardness of hearing. The definition of sensory disabilities takes into account the degree of impairment.
3. Intellectual Disabilities: Persons with an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of 70 and below are typically considered intellectually disabled. Persons with medical conditions like Down Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and Williams Syndrome may also be classified as such.
4. Autism: Defined as a developmental disability with no known causes or cures. Autistic people usually have difficulties with social communication or interaction across contexts and display fixed and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities.
The Need for Integration
PWDs form a significant proportion of our society. According to a 2021 survey, 3.4% of those aged between 18 to 49 reported themselves to be suffering from some form of disability, while 13.3% of those aged 50 and above reported the same.⁵ Thus, excluding PWDs from the workforce constitutes leaving out a significant segment of Singapore's population from meaningful work.
There are moral and economic arguments for integrating PWDs into our workforce. One moral argument is that values like compassion, respect, and charity should spur us to recognise and value everyone, regardless of their disability, for the different strengths they can offer. Thus, PWDs ought to be offered roles that suit their abilities.
A separate economic argument is that discriminatory hiring practices may be economically detrimental to businesses. The high regard for moral principles in society, as well as the increase in awareness of disabilities, puts forth a modern dilemma: should a company not face up to the obligation of hiring PWDs, their image suffers. This, in turn, could lead to economic losses.⁶ Yet, many businesses still baulk at hiring PWDs, due to their prejudices that PWDs are less productive or even burdensome.
PWDs may in fact prove to be valuable assets for businesses. While adapting to cope with challenging personal situations in a world that does not cater to their needs, PWDs have grown to be adept problem solvers. PWDs may thus enhance a business’ capacity to innovate, discovering solutions where their able counterparts were unable to, thereby strengthening the business’ competitive edge and leading to financial gain.⁷
Enabling Masterplan 2030
A large proportion of disabled Singaporeans remain out of work. In 2021 and 2022, an average of 31.4% of residents with disabilities in the working ages of 15 to 64 were employed. 3.0% were without a job but actively looking for one, and 65.7% were outside the labour force, with most citing poor health or disability as the main reason for this.⁸
In response, Singapore has set its sights on increasing the number of PWDs who are employed to 40% by 2030. This would mean placing another estimated 10,000 PWDs into jobs.⁹
Meeting this objective has been included in Singapore’s Enabling Masterplan 2030 (EMP2030), enacted to pave the way towards better supporting PWDs in their daily lives. EMP2030 builds on three preceding masterplans.¹⁰ The first of these was EMP1, which ran from 2007 to 2011 and included fundamentals such as defining disability, setting up a national disability office, and improving education and employment policies. From 2012 to 2017, EMP2 focused on further improving education and employment and developing other areas such as early intervention and adult care. The third masterplan, EMP3, ran from 2017 to 2021 and sought to further improve the quality of life of PWDs and their caretakers to build a more inclusive society.¹¹
These masterplans serve as roadmaps that facilitate collaboration between the Government and the community to better shape the disability landscape. Compared to its predecessors, EMP2030 has a longer implementation runway of eight years. This may be attributed to its longer-term vision of creating an inclusive Singapore by 2030.
Developed with input from PWDs and their caregivers, EMP2030 contains three separate themes that outline the overall goals and recommendations for 14 focal areas.¹² These three strategic themes are:
Strengthen Support for Lifelong Learning in a Fast-Changing Economy
Enable PWDs to Live Independently
3. Create Physical and Social Environments that are Inclusive to PWDs
Promoting Inclusive Employment via EMP2030
The remainder of the Policy Explainer will focus on the ‘Inclusive Employment’ focal area under Strategic Theme II: Enable PWDs to Live Independently.
Despite our focus, we acknowledge that a multi-pronged approach to supporting PWDs is necessary since the efforts undertaken in each theme are inherently linked and can significantly impact each other. Ensuring inclusive employment for PWDs similarly requires a holistic approach – for instance, promoting Inclusive Transport and Inclusive Public Spaces will further empower PWDs to seek employment, as day-to-day mobility challenges are addressed.¹³
Under ‘Inclusive Employment’, EMP2030 has put forth two new overarching objectives for the future, each with specific and actionable steps to be taken.¹⁴
1. Increasing Inclusive Employment Models
Enabling Business Hubs (EBHs): PWDs require customised support and a structured environment to work in. The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will pilot EBHs which aim to bring training and employment for PWDs closer to their homes. The first EBH will be launched in Jurong West, beside Lakeside MRT.¹⁵
Customised Placement Programmes: MSF and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will increase partnerships with SG Enable, the focal agency for disability and inclusion in Singapore, and other social service agencies to engage more PWDs looking for jobs. Other plans include the organisation of sector-specific career fairs with roles tailored for PWDs.¹⁶
Task Force Formation: A special task force will be formed to design alternative employment models and strengthen efforts to increase the number of organisations committed to disability-inclusive employment.¹⁷
2. Review of Existing Employment Models
MSF will review employment models that potentially might not fulfil their disability inclusion aims. One example is the employment of and/or provision of vocational training to PWDs who lack the competencies for open employment at Sheltered Workshops.¹⁸
Overcoming Obstacles to Integrating PWDs
Current PWD employment figures in Singapore remain low despite PWDs’ perceptions that they can bring more to the table.¹⁹ A 2016 study conducted by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) in Singapore showed that 62% of PWDs felt that they were not socially included, accepted or given opportunities to contribute and to achieve personal potential.²⁰
These rather discouraging figures may be attributable to several obstacles in the journey to integrate PWDs into the workforce:
Job Retention: Employers may lack expertise, resources or the willingness to accommodate PWDs, leading to issues with job fit.²¹
Advancement of Technology: An unavoidable trend that will impact all individuals, PWDs have the greatest risk of becoming obsolete, due to their physical or cognitive limitations.²²
Societal Attitudes and Stigma: Despite improvement over the years, the perception of PWDs still remains poor. This can stem from a general lack of public awareness or education on disabilities.²³ Businesses might also shy away from hiring such individuals.
These obstacles may be overcome if society is willing to be understanding and adaptable. First, job retention may be enhanced by allowing PWDs to have more flexible working arrangements such as remote working or shorter working hours.²⁴
Second, to keep up with technology changes, PWDs may be provided with ample education and training opportunities. EMP2030 intends to do this by maintaining existing tech-related initiatives that support PWDs. One initiative is Data for All, a component of the Digital for Life movement that began in 2021, which provides PWDs with free mobile plans to enhance their digital access and connectivity.²⁵ Another initiative is the Digital Enablement Programme, led by Microsoft, local charity SPD and SG Enable. This initiative promotes independent living and enhances the employment prospects of PWDs by providing training on using online services.²⁶
The final obstacle, which pertains to societal attitudes and stigma, is arguably the most difficult to overcome because it involves changing the mindsets of society as a whole. Many might feel that acceptance of the differently abled is best cultivated from a young age through educational programmes like the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum implemented in schools.²⁷ However, more can be done. Beyond textbooks with coloured pictures and drawings of the disabled, young children can also be given opportunities to interact with them. Such exposure has been proven to lead to decreased anxiety and better attitudes towards PWDs.²⁸
Employers, the Government and society as a whole must work together to ensure PWDs can receive the required support for employment. Refreshing the social compact, which the Government plans to do with the new Forward SG initiative, is but the first step towards creating a more inclusive, empathetic and understanding Singapore.
Singapore should not overlook the integration of PWDs into its workforce. PWDs are important members of our diverse community who can bring valuable skill sets and perspectives to businesses. That being said, the road to seamless integration is a challenging one. Changing current norms relies heavily on cooperation and mutual understanding between members of society, hence the need for clearly crafted policies to ensure gradual, but constant change.
This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.
By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.