People with disabilities (PWD) are often perceived as a burden because of their incapability to suit the rhythm of the rest of society. As people have become so used to this perception, they automatically conclude that the disabled are incapable of all activities. The truth is, while they may face more difficulties performing certain tasks, that is not an indication of their capabilities.
Meet Debra Lam, a Singaporean who has grown up with two brothers who are diagnosed with autism and now champions to change Singapore society’s view on Persons with Disabilities (PWD).
How she came to understand that her brothers are different
Debra would describe herself as a very privileged student as she was often nominated for extra-curricular educational opportunities by her teachers. But it wasn’t the case for her two brothers who weren’t doing as well as she did at school.
At first, she was unaware of her brothers’ disabilities. She thought laziness was the reason that they didn’t perform academically.
As she came to learn of her brothers’ condition, she also had to witness how they got ostracized and bullied at school. Through primary school, she tried to hide the fact that her brothers have special needs from the other students. Only one boy knew of her relation, who is now her boyfriend and business partner, Ryan Ng.
Ryan and Debra met in secondary school. His brother has William Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by distinctive facial features and intellectual disability.
One time Ryan read an article where some teachers from special needs schools made snide comments about their students. He shared the article with Debra and it triggered them to do something about it.
The Deaf Dragon
Their mission started with something they were both passionate about: dragon boating. They came up with an idea to field an entire dragon boat crew of PWDs to demonstrate that they can perform as well as anyone else. They pitched the idea to an online youth ideas competition and won the prize.
With the prize money, they started the team in March 2012. They called it Deaf Dragons. The reason was, well, because it described all the team members.
Along the training process, Debra and Ryan noticed why PWDs are marginalised. The paddlers were unable to perform the prescribed workouts because they had little prior knowledge to fitness and exercise. They also could not turn to YouTube as there were no subtitles—remembering that they do have limitations with hearing.
After speaking to more PWDs beyond the paddlers in Deaf Dragons, Debra and Ryan also realized there were instances where persons with visual impairment were turned away from gyms as the staff were concerned of their safety and did not have the skill sets to support them.
After some research, they concluded that the problem (in the case of the gym) lies beyond the fitness needs of PWD. PWDs were worried that they would be stared at and discriminated against while the general public expressed discomfort being around them.
They saw that the reason for society’s behaviour is due to a lack of information. People don’t truly understand PWD as they rarely interact with them (only those who have a family member or friend who is PWD). Thus, it created many misconceptions towards PWD.
In March 2015, Debra co-founded Society Staples with Ryan. It is a social enterprise that aims to improve social inclusion for PWD in Singapore. In other words, the goal is to shift the society’s perspective towards PWD to the point that PWD is seen as part of the mainstream, not a second class community.
The company runs various events and programmes to spread awareness of PWDs, the challenges they face as an individual and in society, and also impart skills and knowledge on ways to be more inclusive as an individual, group or organization.
This is done by conducting team building programmes which involves simulating visual impairment and deafness through dragon boating or building sports and play equipment like bicycles and giant Jenga to be donated to social service agencies serving PWDs.
In their community events, Society Staples utilises the concept of play to bring PWDs and non-PWDs together. They have also created opportunities for PWDs to be facilitators.
Lastly, Society Staples capacity builds in organisations by training participants in ways they can be more inclusive, whether it is ensuring CSR programmes created addresses real needs and gaps in the community or equipping staff with the skills to better support the needs of PWDs.
PWD should no longer be seen as inconveniences, they are just part of the society like everyone else. There is no better way to understand PWD than by interacting with them. Join the Society Staples movement through their website or contact them at [email protected].