When I got to know of Society Staples, the heart of their business struck a chord with me – I have spent time volunteering for a programme for adults with disabilities over the past few years.
Like them, I think inclusivity should be a norm – it shouldn’t have to be highlighted through multiple campaigns. In fact, my ideal world is one where inclusion is normalized – such campaigns will not need to exist anymore.
But is that possible?
The members I know come with varying levels of functioning – some can hold regular jobs, but there are non-verbal ones who may never achieve the same level of high functionality. With such a wide spectrum existing among people with disabilities (PWDs), is inclusion possible?
Over an email interview, Debra of Society Staples shares her heart on growing up with a sibling with a disability, disability inclusion in Singapore, and the role Society Staples, a social enterprise, plays to facilitate all of these.
Addressing A Gap
The beginnings of Society Staples date back to a community project in 2012, where a full crew of deaf paddlers used dragon boating to combat the condescending attitudes of society towards PWDs.
The team achieved success in the sporting arena; yet, the founders uncovered a bigger gap – the lack of awareness, education and opportunities for PWDs were clear limiting factors that restricted the progress of social inclusion.
Debra and her Society Staples co-founder, Ryan, decided more needed to be done. Thus, Society Staples was born – with the ambitious vision of creating a more inclusive future for PWDs.
Through a myriad of channels, Society Staples facilitates social inclusion through awareness and advocacy work, community events, and training and consultancy projects.
Since its inception, Society Staples has done “over 150 events” and impacted the lives of “more than 15,000 individuals from all walks of life.”
Debra shares that “the dream is for the company to fold because that would mean social inclusion has become so seamless and natural that there is no longer a demand for such solutions.”
A Personal Connection
Growing up with younger brothers with autism, Debra admits it was “was very difficult to connect with them,” because she did not understand their conditions and situations. In addition, her brother’s frequent meltdowns would cause “a lot of chaos” in the home.
However, she is quick to point out that her experience is unique and varies from Ryan’s, as would anyone else’s – no two individuals or families are the same.
Even so, she felt the need to grow up more quickly than her peers without siblings with disabilities. Debra attributes this to knowing she would have to take over the care of her siblings from her parents.
“There is a certain pressure to that,” she tells me.
Surprisingly, Debra only told her peers she had a brother with special needs when she was in polytechnic. She attributes this to seeing how her brothers, who both went to mainstream schools, were bullied in school.
Frightened that she would be discriminated and bullied if her friends knew her brothers were special, Debra refrained from telling her friends initially.
Growing Up Together
Amidst these years of growing up alongside siblings with a disability, what has Debra learnt from her brothers?
“They have so much more potential than what society thinks of them and what science and research says about the autism condition,” she shares.
In relation to empathy for people with disabilities and their caregivers, I can’t help being a cynic at heart – how can anyone claim to empathise for something they have not experienced? Nonetheless, Debra takes this in her stride and views it as a matter of capacity and ability.
“I believe everyone has the capacity and ability to empathise even if it is a situation you are unfamiliar with. What matters is having (the) heart and interest to go out of your social circles, talk to people you usually do not speak to, (and to) expose and immerse yourself in experiences and knowledge you are unaware of.”
Debra sums it up like this: “Ultimately, (having empathy is) a case of whether you want to do it or not!”
Person Or Ability?
In being trained as a teacher, I was taught to use people-first language in referring to people with disabilities; but in recent years, I’ve been exposed to people who feel their conditions shape the way they live. Hence, I’ve come to recognise that for some disabled people, ability-first language is the way to go.
Between the two, which is the way to go?
“Whichever that individual prefers,” Debra says, explaining that the debate between people-first and ability-first language arose and stemmed from the non-PWD segment of the population.
“We should not be deciding what to call them. Let persons with disabilities tell us how they want to be addressed. Even if their answers differ across communities and disabilities, that’s fine. Just remember their preference,” she explains.
Bringing The Topic To Light
What about campaigns like “See The True Me”? I think the intentions of the campaign are wonderful – but what if the “true self” of other persons with disability may not be as outstanding as those featured in the campaign?
Debra approaches this campaign with a wider perspective – the campaign has attained wide outreach, and increased awareness towards the public of people with special needs.
She says, “I love that the government is really taking a more proactive approach towards disability issues, whether (this is) through raising awareness, (or) implementing initiatives and policies that will improve the lives of PWDs or have more robust caregivers’ support.”
“It is a huge improvement from 5 years ago. Honestly speaking, prior to See the True Me campaign, I don’t think there was any campaign about PWDs locally that managed to have such a wide outreach.”
This does not mean Debra is unaware or in denial about the backlash of the campaign – she agrees with it “to a certain extent.” She acknowledges it for what it is – a campaign with its limitations.
“We also must understand that a marketing campaign cannot cover every single detail about PWDs. The entire community is huge, with lots of different conditions, needs and opinions.”
For Debra, the bigger concern would be how we move ahead from here.
“How do we channel that awareness and get more people involved with the sector? How do we do more? How can we progress Singapore to make it more inclusive?” These are questions Debra deems worth exploring, in light of the space for discussion See The True Me has created.
Not That Easy
Despite the efforts put in to creating such campaigns, a recent survey shows only eleven per cent of those who work with special-needs kids think Singapore is an inclusive society.
These findings, though upsetting, came to Debra as no surprise. This is something she sees happening every day – people talk about striving towards a more inclusive society, but their behaviour is “definitely still lacking.”
“Singaporeans are not comfortable interacting with PWDs and many of them do not actually know how to do so,” she explains.
Debra also points out that there are many levels and definitions of inclusion.
For example, some may consider a venue “inclusive” when there is a ramp for wheelchair access. For others, inclusivity takes place when a PWD walks into a room of non-PWD. Some may even say inclusion only happens when PWDs are given opportunities to actively participate in the community and are able to integrate well.
“Inclusion is on a scale and it is a matter of progress,” she explains.
Finding A Common Ground
Despite the progress Singapore has made, more needs to be done.
Debra believes the difficulty non-PWDs have in connecting with PWDs stems from a lack of shared history and experiences, owing to the different systems they grow up in.
“But if we were to dig deeper, we start to find many commonalities where we can start to understand them from. (This includes) experiences (of) being left out or bullied, having your mobility reduced due to an injury, (and) the need to feel like we belong,” she muses.
Despite the collective effort of the various organizations that raise awareness of inclusion, Debra believes their efforts “will only go so far,” because “(an) inclusive society will only materialise with the involvement of the entire society.”
“(Even) if I do not see that happening in my lifetime, I know that at the very least, everyone at Society Staples has been part of the process and journey in making this dream happen.”