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“People need to start caring and hearing us out”

by Goh Wai Fu

“I smile and I try to present myself positively. Everyone, my friends, my family and my social worker, thinks that I am happy. But each night as I lay down in bed, I can’t help but cry, thinking about my life and how I wish I could be independent and free,” Mr Wesley Wee told me when I first met him earlier this year.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth and suffering from multiple disabilities, Mr Wee, who is 31 years old this year, has been struggling to seek employment his entire life.

Mr Wee's motivation of becoming independent came from his realization that his dependency on the social assistance scheme during 2009, which pays him a monthly sum of $200 a month, was insufficient for his daily needs, such as transportation and medical bills. He was also concerned about his long term care. Deprived of CPF savings, Mr. Wee realized that he had to rely on his family for his medical expenses.

Mr Wee recently attained a license to be a street hawker, selling products and owning what he calls, his ‘little business’. But it did not come by easy.

Under the National Environment Agency (NEA), the street hawking scheme aims to help the needy earn a living. However, its regulations stipulate that individuals applying need to be above 45 years of age, unemployed for at least three months and be in financial difficulties. Individuals who had acquired the license are only allowed to sell in areas designated by NEA.

Despite such regulations, street hawking is often discouraged as it is deemed to be an unstable source of income. Instead, individuals are encouraged to seek public assistance through the social assistance scheme.

Mr. Wee’s applications for license to street hawk had been rejected a few times. It was only with the help of his social worker that he was able to seek the help of his MP, to finally get an approval. However, he had to withdraw from his social assistance scheme in order to attain his license to sell. He was also designated three areas where he was allowed to conduct his business, around HDB compounds in Punggol, Pasir Ris and Tampines. He was not allowed to go to the central areas within Tampines and Pasir Ris.

“I am not sure if I can survive in these areas as I am only allowed to sell under certain HDB blocks or its nearby coffee shops," Mr Wesley said. "This is now my major concern. Otherwise, I am happy to have attained my license”.

When asked what he plans to do with his money should he becomes rich, Mr Wee laughed at first, then changed to a serious tone “If I ever get rich, I would donate back to help the disabled. People need to know more about the struggles we experience. People need to start caring and hearing us out”.

Employment discrimination  of the disabled

Mr Wee's story brings to light the discrimination that individuals with disabilities experience, both within the job market and the society. Employment discrimination continues to be a major issue impeding the wellbeing for them.

Despite the existence of organizations such as Bizlink Centre, which provides employment placements, many of the disabled in Singapore continue to remain unemployed. Those who are fortunately employed are mainly engaged in low paying jobs, such as call centers or factory production. Consequently, the skills that some of these individuals possess (such as sales) are neglected. Instead, individuals are often stereotyped as being dependent or “are less productive than the ‘normal’ individual”.

Two important factors contribute to the marginalization of the disabled in their negotiation for employment.

Firstly, the notion of charity, rather than fundamental rights, underlying welfare provision in Singapore for the disabled undermines their rights to employment. Instead, employment of individuals with disabilities is often deemed as an act of charity, resulting in their position as the ‘last to hire, first to fire’ category within the labour market.

Second is the lack of a central registry to capture data and statistic of the disabled, as well as their employment history and status. This lack of documentation of the demographics and statuses of individuals with disabilities in Singapore makes advocacy for individuals with disabilities difficult.

Despite the development in infrastructure and services catering to the lives of individuals with disabilities, employment discrimination continues to be one of the biggest obstacles towards improving the wellbeing for them. Work remains a vital part in people’s life.

When asked about his persistence in seeking employment, Mr Wee said, “I wish I can work so that I can stop depending on my family and contribute back to them. It also keeps my mind away from all the negative thoughts."

Rather than leaving them to compete within the labour market, or to provide ‘charitable’ services, there is a need for the government to increase assistance to individuals with disabilities who seek employment. Aside from matching work based on the skills that the individuals possess, the government should aim to protect and provide quality and dignified work for individuals with disabilities.

Street hawking is decent work

There is a need for regulations to be relaxed for individuals with disabilities applying for street hawking license. Despite being an unstable source of income for these individuals, street hawking helps to provide many benefits for individuals with disabilities. The reason to extend street hawking to individuals with real needs has to be understood.

Aside from allowing individuals with disabilities to be financially independent, street hawking as a form of work improves self esteem and self worth, as they reduce their reliance on their family and friends in caregiving. The financial earnings may reduce strains on familial relationships, especially for lower income families. The drive to be self reliance is also in-line with the government welfare principles of self sustenance before handouts.

Instead of restricting the locations where individuals with licenses can sell their products to secluded, heartland areas, there is a need to increase these locations to more centralized places. Rather than keeping this group of individuals out of sight, a provision of an alternate source of livelihood for individuals with real needs will bring to light the compassionate and dynamism of Singapore policies in its assistance to individuals with needs.

The writer majored in Sociology and Social Work