Myth of the disabled worker

When Ms Jane Chua, 52, was looking for a job after acquiring a disability, she was swiftly rejected. Twice.

In 2014, she had three toes on her left foot amputated as a result of diabetes complications. Despite two years of rehabilitation and physiotherapy, during which she learnt to walk again, she still has mobility issues.

Before her toe amputation, she previously worked, for years at a time, as a cashier and clerk and applied last year for such jobs.

But when she turned up for the two interviews using a quad stick, a type of walking aid, she was immediately told, without being interviewed, that she was unsuited for the role.

After an eight-month job search, she was finally hired in February this year. Her new role is a personal assistant and administrator at events agency Adrenalin Group, where more than 20 per cent of employees have special needs.

Inclusive workplaces are rare in Singapore, where persons with disabilities (PWDs) comprise just 0.55 per cent of the resident labour force. They are mainly employed in the hospitality, food and beverage, wholesale and retail, and administrative support sectors.

Six of the 25 workers at Adrenalin have disabilities and other special needs. Staff members include two deaf persons, an employee who uses a wheelchair and people recovering from mental illness.

Located in a wheelchair-accessible building in Toa Payoh, the company gives $500 a year to each employee with special needs to address those needs. They can use the money to repair their wheelchair or buy a new hearing aid, for instance.

A deaf employee also teaches sign-language classes about once a month to all staff.

"I can learn a lot of new things here. It's a blessing for me, as a disabled person, to manage to find a job," says Ms Chua, adding that she had feared being an older worker in her 50s further disadvantaged her.

Mr Richardo Chua, managing director of Adrenalin Group, for whom Ms Chua is a personal assistant, set up the social enterprise in 2008 to marry his interests in volunteerism and event management.

But not all companies are like Adrenalin.

In fact, one of the greatest hurdles to the private sector hiring more PWDs is the fear of lowered productivity and the negative effect that "accommodations", such as longer training periods, have on the bottom line.

But does hiring PWDs lower productivity?

Not necessarily, says Ms Vanessa Yam, a fund-raising executive at Bizlink, a non-profit organisation that offers employment assistance and training for PWDs.

One of Bizlink's biggest businesses is providing cleaning teams to other companies. These teams are made up of able-bodied workers and those with disabilities.

The work is split up so that productivity is not compromised. For example, PWDs do the mopping while others handle heavier machinery such as floor-polishing machines.

But even if PWDs may not be the fastest workers, their presence may inject other intangible benefits into an organisation.

For example, in food and beverage chain Han's Group, about 50 employees, or 10 per cent of its workforce, are persons with disabilities.

These workers, who have conditions such as autism, hearing issues or mild intellectual disabilities, do work such as preparing and serving food, sweeping floors, clearing tables and manning cashiers.

They are trained using a buddy system, which benefits staff with disabilities as well as able-bodied ones, says Ms Lilian Teoh, a manager for customer service, learning and development at Han's Group.

"Non-disabled staff can look out for staff with disabilities, who may let their buddy, but not other staff, know if they are not feeling well, for instance," she says. "It makes the rest of the team more compassionate. We see team members offering help to our workers with disabilities without being told."

In Singapore, a lot more can be done to change mindsets in corporate companies, say disability support groups.

Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) helps to train and secure employment for PWDs.

Ms Evelyn Leong, director of corporate development and outreach at Minds, says: "Our clients are very good at doing work that is repetitive. They're enthusiastic and enjoy working.

"The biggest hurdle is people thinking that those with special needs cannot fulfil their work tasks."

Minds regularly organises internships in industries as diverse as laundromats, supermarkets, hardware shops and car wash facilities in petrol stations for its clients starting from the age of about 16.

By around age 19, some PWDs can be guided towards working in sheltered workshops that cater to them, doing work such as packing, retail, baking and making crafts.

Others are placed in the general labour market, where they are mentored and supported by job coaches from Minds who ensure that they are not stressed in their new environment or check that they are able to take public transport to work.

The Government also runs schemes to help firms that hire those with disabilities. These include the Open Door Programme, which provides training grants for companies to develop customised programmes for persons with disabilities.

But while funding is available, the low employment rate for PWDs suggests other barriers.

Mr Chua, managing director of Adrenalin, says some PWDs seeking employment need to build their interviewing and other soft skills.

"Some are not able to express themselves. I have received e-mails such as one which read: 'Do you have a job? I am deaf," he says.

He grants interviews to anyone with special needs who approaches Adrenalin for work. On average, he hires one out of every 10 PWDs he interviews, he says.

Having an integrated workforce makes sense when there are labour shortages.

At Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre hotel in Cavenagh Road, where 12 per cent of the more than 200 staff are PWDs, adjusting to the different ways of communication of some PWD employees, some of whom have intellectual disabilities or autism, is a worthwhile investment.

This includes getting managers to give more regular feedback, supervision and encouragement to PWD staff compared with other staff, or breaking down instructions into simpler components, says Ms Tresille Melson, the hotel's human resources director.

Having PWD employees, who work in departments such as housekeeping, "supports us in our manpower issues", says Ms Fauziah Ali, an executive housekeeper at the hotel, adding that one PWD worker has been there for about 20 years.

Mr Lee Kwang Hee, 42, a cleaner at the hotel who has Down syndrome, enjoys his work.

His younger brother, engineer Lee Kay Sua, 39, says: "My brother is very responsible. He wakes up at about 4.30am and takes a 11/2-hour bus ride at 5.30am to get to work. He is always early."

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