A little help goes a long way to enable special-needs workers

A little help goes a long way to enable special-needs workers

With technology and an understanding work culture, companies can tap on a rich vein of talents with special needs.

Marc Chiang
Process architect Marc Chiang works from home on most days with a variety of devices and software that helps him work. (Photo: Fann Sim)

SINGAPORE: The world of Marc Chiang became blurry seven years ago after he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease which causes his vision to worsen over time.

Back then, he was working as a facilities engineer at Keppel Data Centres. His job was to oversee maintenance work at the data centres. “It was pretty hazardous because there was live electrical equipment which you cannot just touch,” Chiang, 38, recalled.

When he found out about his condition, he hesitated to inform his supervisor as the company was in a transitional period. But when he eventually told his supervisor she responded “very negatively”, he said. “She actually told me, ‘I don’t know what else you can do’,” said Chiang.  

He is one of more than 12,000 workers - or about 0.55 per cent of the resident workforce - with special needs, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development. 

For Chiang, he was fortunate that his general manager then, Chng Hak Kiat (who is now the Chief Operating Officer), decided to create a new role that would leverage his experience in running data centres. Chiang said this gave him “a new lease of life” as he battled depression.

“When the job was settled then I could do other things. I couldn’t be doing sports. I couldn’t be having a lifestyle. I couldn’t be going for holidays. I couldn’t be doing anything if I’m not working and earning a living. So it’s not just a job that he has given me,” Chiang said.

TECHNOLOGY HELPS, BUT ONLY SOME DO

From there, Chiang picked himself up and devoted himself to the work of a process architect, where he is required to read pages and pages of documents put forth by other departments in Keppel Data Centres. He reviews their work processes and consults with them to improve their workflow.

In his new role, he has been given the freedom to work from home or in office as he sees fit. He has set up an office by a window in his brightly-lit 3.5-bedroom HDB flat in Clementi.

His workstation includes a second monitor which “any other person would need”, as well as free text magnifier add-ons that come with the computer programmes he uses for work, like Adobe Reader. 

“There are certain software that are good-to-have but I don’t really need to install anything else,” he said.

He also has a handheld device that allows him to magnify any physical documents as well as his iPhone, which scans documents and reads it out to him.

Even with technological help, there are still gaps in his work processes that require the cooperation of his colleagues. For instance, his colleagues are advised to send him documents in Word format instead of a PDF copy to suit his assistive programmes.

There were also times when technology worked against him. Once, at a new data centre, Chiang was faced with an access control system with touchscreens. What made it worse was it had a digital number pad which had scrambled numbers for added security.

“I told a general manager and my immediate supervisor. We looked at it and asked, ‘Is there a need for the jumbled up characters?’ In the end we didn’t change the touchscreen but unscrambled the numbers,” Chiang said.

This experience also highlighted to Chiang’s supervisor the importance of being inclusive and the feedback that can come from diverse hires within the organisation.

AN ENABLING WORKPLACE CULTURE

Like Chiang, 25-year-old Ong Hua Han counts his lucky stars for finding an enabling employer such as Deutsche Bank, through SG Enable.

The government-established agency's programmes include working with employers to provide suitable internship opportunities for students with disabilities.

When he was studying at the National University of Singapore, Ong, who has brittle bone disease, did a 10-week internship with Deutsche Bank that was specifically catered to undergraduates with disabilities. He subsequently joined the German bank after he graduated.

The bank has a diversity programme to include people with disabilities. Bernd Starke, who chairs the programme, said the bank has taken on board two interns with disabilities as full-time staff. Ong’s colleague, who is also a wheelchair user like him, required automated doors for her to get around the office.

Starke said the bank has not been required to make many changes to accommodate them, while the cost to make the office more accessible is "not an issue". 

The bank is putting its attention on creating a fairer work environment, such as by training hiring managers to guard against unconscious biases during the hiring process, said Starke.

“They’re really focusing on hiring the skill sets that matter, and the person (who will) contribute positively to the business. When they are convinced, they will do the necessary investments,” said Starke.

While Ong has heard of instances where employers discriminate people with disabilities, he has personally never experienced it.

“If I meet such an employer, I will end the application and move on. I personally have no interest in working for an employer like that. It’s unattractive to me and I believe it’s their loss,” he said.

His assessment of the employer starts right from the beginning, during the job hunt. For instance, he would inform the hiring manager that he uses a wheelchair and ask if there would be stairs to climb. Potential employers would always respond positively to his question, he added.

GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT

Even though the Government and non-profit agencies have made the effort to promote fair employment practices, a report by the Disabled People’s Association and Institute of Policy Studies in July showed that some still experience a disability pay gap.

On a similar note, a 2015 Singapore Management University study said the salaries of people with disabilities tended to be “quite low” and could not be depended on to provide for their needs.

“Employment is all about merit. So if the job requires you to move an object from A to B but you can only move it from A to A and a half, then it’s okay to be paid less and I walk into it knowing that I can only be half-paid. But the more controversial one would be we both did the same thing and I get paid less. That’s not the same thing,” Ong said.

Jane Lim, a 40-year-old engineer with a hearing impairment, had a positive experience before starting at her first job. As a fresh polytechnic graduate, she had checked published salary guidelines and knew how much she should expect to be paid.

“I actually wrote down that the salary be less than the guideline. But my boss told me, ‘No, you cannot put this down. I believe in your ability so you should put the salary (which) is the same as the salary guideline’. He believed in my abilities and not my disability,” she said.

While Starke believes that the disabled community is a talent pool that needs to be looked at by every industry, "especially those that are strapped of manpower", he cautioned against looking at them as a cheap source of human capital.

“I do understand that smaller companies probably have more concerns about the ability to pay,” he said. “Here in Singapore, there are a couple of programmes that provide support and they help to overcome these concerns. 

“But in the long run, if you focus on abilities and you are convinced this is the person who can do the job, then you should pay them fairly.”

Source: CNA/fs(ra)

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