How Inclusive Is Our Society?

Budget Speech 2011 by Sylvia Lim

One of the aims of this Budget is to foster social cohesion and to build an inclusive society.

The term ‘inclusive society’ has different meanings to different people. One important aspect of an inclusive society is that it should be one that integrates people with different physical and mental abilities into the mainstream.

By this yardstick, our society still has some way to go to qualify as inclusive.

This Budget does provide for a continuation of MCYS programmes for the Elderly and Disabled, and gives some support to Special Education (SPED) schools and students. I note that MOE has committed some money for development of 3 SPED schools. However, to be truly inclusive, Singapore needs to commit will and resources towards integrating persons with disabilities in a much more holistic way.

The Government recently submitted a report to the United Nations. The UN Human Rights Council has a process called the Universal Periodic Review, which examines the human rights record of each UN member. This year is our turn, and the Government submitted its National Report as part of that process.

In the National Report, the Government mentioned that it was considering signing four international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It also said that Singapore is “actively studying the provisions of the CRPD”.

While some may see this as progress, we are actually laggards. We have not yet signed the Convention, when 147 countries have already signed,1 including all our ASEAN neighbours except Myanmar.

As mentioned in the Budget Statement, social cohesion “cannot simply be left to market forces”. All the more with persons with disabilities, who usually have little bargaining power – there is a need for special protection to safeguard their rights and quality of life.

A look at the CRPD will reveal that Singapore falls short in several areas by international benchmarks. I will highlight just a few.

Article 7 of the Convention requires countries to take all necessary measures to ensure that children with disabilities have full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, on an equal basis with other children. Article 24 recognises the right to education, including lifelong learning, and expressly prohibits excluding children from compulsory education on the basis of disability.

Currently, our Compulsory Education Act ensures that every child attends at least six years of primary school. However, the subsidiary legislation specifically exempts children with physical or intellectual disabilities from compulsory education. While this may have been gazetted for practical reasons, seen from the Convention standpoint – it is a form of discrimination. The current situation is that special needs children in Singapore are not enjoying the same legal right to education as other children.

It is largely left to voluntary welfare organizations to educate special needs children. The Government provides some subsidies, but parents of special needs children still bear a much heavier financial burden than other parents. Apart from the additional expenses parents will spend associated with a special needs child, school fees are means-tested, unlike in the mainstream schools.

Early intervention is critical for special needs children to mitigate the effects of their disabilities. But there are waiting lists for schools and therapies, suggesting a resource issue and losing precious time in the child’s formative years.

If Singapore were are to sign up to the Convention, investments would be needed to ensure that children with disabilities enjoyed similar educational rights.

Article 9 of the Convention provides that States shall take measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the physical environment, to transportation, to communications, electronic services and other facilities on an equal basis with others.

We have made significant progress in implementing barrier-free accessibility. However, this does not apply to older buildings, so many remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities. The public transportation system is also not yet completely barrier-free – for example, it is expected that buses will be completely wheelchair-friendly only by 2020. In addition, disabled persons should have a concessionary travel rate, just like students and seniors. Most importantly, how easily can a person with disabilities access public information – for instance, how many e-government initiatives are disabled-friendly?

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs noted in a recent report that Singapore does not have comprehensive disability legislation aimed at moving away from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects” of charity, and towards viewing them as “subjects” with rights… and capable of being active members of society (SIIA UPR submission 2011).

If we are seriously considering signing up to the CRPD, the appropriate investments will need to be made.

Recently I came across cases of disabled adults being left at home due to lack of further education opportunities after they turn 18 years old, or inability to afford day care activities.

There is still much more that can be done by the government in this area. This aspect must not be forgotten if we are to achieve the vision mentioned in the Budget statement – a truly inclusive society “where everyone can contribute and share in the nation’s progress”.

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