By Emily Ni (20S03C), Ng Ziqin (20S03H), and Sarah Lok (20A03A)
With contributions from Caitlin Goh (20S06O) and Cherie Goh (20S06O)
At a time when most were preoccupied with CT preparations and MEP applications, some sought to challenge the assumptions which Rafflesians might have of persons-with-disabilities (PWDs), remind us of the similarities we share, and underscore the need to build a more inclusive society. Aptly titled Common Ground, this two-week initiative was the inaugural collaboration between Raffles Interact, CA, and RECAS.
Here, Raffles Press highlights two main events that happened as part of Common Ground: Human Library and Y6 Assembly.
For the uninitiated, a human library functions just like any other library–books are borrowed, stories are unfolded, and perceptions are changed.
The catch: The “books” are real, actual humans.
Held on the afternoon of 14 March (Thursday), the event aimed to help participants better understand PWDs. Three “books” were available for “loan”–Mr Stanley, a mouth painter; Ms Debra, the Co-Founder of Society Staples; and Ms Jacelyn, the Autism Resource Centre’s (ARC) Executive Director–in order to better understand PWDs in Singapore.
Mr Stanley was the first “book”, or speaker, at the human library. After an unfortunate motorcycle accident in 2005 left him paralysed from the chest down, he learnt to paint with his mouth despite the odds, and hopes to use his paintings to motivate those going through hardships of their own.
Although he admitted that it was hard to accept his situation immediately after the accident, he chose to pick up mouth painting after losing control of his arms as he “did not want his parents to feel sad”. Spending around three hours painting each day, Mr Stanley definitely works tirelessly at his craft despite the difficulties that come with mouth painting.
The second “book” was Ms Debra, who shared about the work she does with her social enterprise, Society Staples, as well as about her personal life–in which she juggles her work and education whilst caring for her two brothers with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She chose to defy parental pressure to find a high-paying job, choosing instead to do good for the community through her social enterprise.
Caitlyn Goh (20S06O) termed Ms Debra “an inspiration” for her strength and dedication, explaining that “she [had] demonstrated that we can make a change if we try”.
Ms Jacelyn was the final “book” in the human library. Serving as the ARC’s Executive Director, she is highly involved in ARC’s social enterprises–our very own Professor Brawn Cafe and The Art Faculty–in helping to bring out the potential of individuals with autism.
As she did not know how to react to the behaviour of people with autism at times, Ms Jacelyn was initially apprehensive of interacting with them. Despite this, she decided to step out of her comfort zone, and joined the ARC after learning more about autism.
“I really liked the human library idea… as we get to ask our questions to each speaker freely and comfortably in a small group setting.” — Cherie Goh (20S06O)
The last Year 6 assembly of Term 1 took the form of a panel with three guest speakers–Dr Alvin Tan; Mr Loke Jun Leong, Alumni Management Head of the Association of Persons with Special Needs (APSN); and Mr Nadi Chan, Director of Foreword Coffee–and was followed by a question-and-answer segment.
For students who rarely came into contact with PWDs, the talk offered the opportunity to learn more about PWDs and the existing efforts to integrate them into Singapore’s workforce.
“The government can provide resources but if societal norms do not change, then no progress will be made.” — Dr Alvin Tan
Dr Tan emphasised the need to avoid ivory tower thinking and instead, actively engage PWDs to find out their individual challenges, needs, and goals: just like how each and every one is an individual, PWDs are no different–measures and policies to help them can only be effective if they are tailored to their needs.
Additionally, Mr Loke Jun Leong brought in another aspect of integration of PWDs, speaking about the need to empower persons with mild intellectual disability (MID) through education. ASPN runs two primary schools, two secondary schools and a centre for adults. Its curriculum is geared towards toward employment, which Mr Loke described as a “main life goal” for persons with disabilities.
Emphasising the need for mindsets to shift, and for more people to start actively thinking about how to better aid PWDs, he challenged students to go a step further by thinking actively about how they can build a more inclusive society, instead of merely “being bystanders”.
“Lack of is not the equivalent of ‘cannot learn’ or ‘don’t have’. They [may be] … less developed in these areas, but they can be taught.” –Mr Loke Jun Leong
Mr Nadi Chan talked about how his company, Foreword Coffee, is adapting their workplace to create an environment which is more suited to PWDs. But above that, Mr Chan hopes to create a brand which goes beyond the notion of “support us because we hire PWDs”.
“We don’t want people to buy our coffee because we are a social enterprise; we want people to buy our products because they are of good quality, and then [they can] discover what PWDs can do when you give them the right opportunities and workflow”, stressed Mr Chan, expressing his hope to showcase the viability of PWDs working in the F&B industry through his company’s coffee outlets.
The Q&A segment offered students a chance to ask meaningful questions and gain deeper insights from the speakers’ responses, with a question asking the speakers how they would define inclusivity of PWDs in society.
Dr Tan reinforced the idea that that is how we should be thinking of persons with disabilities–not as people who “just can’t”, but people with strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and challenges.
He then went on to discuss the difference between physical inclusion and social inclusion. Thought-provokingly, he asked, “How do you define inclusion? Is it just about physical inclusion? Would just having a PWD in your class, in your school being that you’re in an inclusive school… you have physical inclusion but social exclusion.” He stated that this could not be ignored due to the nature of some disabilities, that are acquired from old age such as loss of sight, hearing and mobility. He asked, “(What happens) When it hits your grandparents, your parents, when it hits you? It will touch us… These are all things that we have to think through so it’s never something like “it does not involve me” “I’m not interested”. It will impact all of us.”
When asked what the most common misconception society needs to address about PWDs is, Mr Chan stated that some people perceive PWDs as people who “cannot work, have no social skills, and cannot be as productive as anyone else”. However, he believes that it is untrue, citing an example of one of his baristas being able to multitask better than him; he also added that we ought to remember that PWDs have potential, and that we should not limit their potential based on our own misconceptions of them.
“Sometimes, they just need a little longer to learn, [and] to adapt to have the skills. It’s not that they can’t, it’s just that they take a little longer.”
It’s safe to say that ‘Common Ground’ has helped Rafflesians to empathise more with PWDs, for it was a timely reminder for us to pay greater attention to the PWDs in our midst, and to strive for inclusivity in society as we continue striving forth towards forging a common ground.