A social network for Singapore's special needs community? There may soon be an app for that

A social network for Singapore's special needs community? There may soon be an app for that

The idea for the mobile app-based social network for the Association for Persons with Special Needs came from four Ngee Ann Polytechnic students during a recent hackathon organised by VMware.

APSN alumni Ooi Leong Pin and volunteer Foong Poh Mun
Mr Ooi Leong Pin (left), who has mild intellectual disability and finds it difficult to make friends in social settings, with fellow APSN cafe volunteer Foong Poh Mun (right). (Photo: APSN)

SINGAPORE: Ooi Leong Pin is a 23-year-old part-time cook at a local restaurant. He has mild intellectual disability (MID) and struggles with social issues, such as making new friends. 

People with MID might find that their ability to function in society is “significantly impaired” because of their limitations in conceptual, social and practical skills, Mr James Ng from the Association For Persons with Special Needs’ (APSN) Infocomm Committee explained to CNA.

This results in challenges such as applying the skills they have learnt in school at their workplaces and fitting in with those around them, he added.

But a new social media concept by four teenagers from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of InfoComm Technology could help people like Mr Ooi.

Team Flippers – comprising 18-year-olds Ernest Lim, Joel Tio, Lim Jiale and Liu Wai Ho – successfully pitched their Connect Us platform concept to the judges at a recent hackathon, which was organised by tech company VMware and supported by APSN.

The need for social support and helping “painfully shy” special needs people make more friends were some of the reasons why judges picked a social network concept to be the overall winner of the competition.

“Most people with mild intellectual disability have trouble making friends with neuro-typical (or normal) people. Instead, they are more comfortable with having friends in the MID community,” Mr Ng said.

Mr Ooi would sometimes speak in a voice like the Star Wars character Darth Vader when he is uncomfortable, Mr Ng added, and the 23-year-old will usually scoot off after work instead of hanging out with his co-workers at the restaurant.

“If they cannot fit in a normal workplace, it will affect their staying power at the job and, subsequently, their ability to be independent and active contributors to society,” Mr Ng said.

Mr Ooi volunteers at the APSN’s Cafe for All on his days off, and he recently made a new friend, fellow volunteer Ms Foong Poh Mun.

They struck a chord after she managed to draw him out of his shell during an event they were both participating in, Mr Ng said.

“Usually, it is hard for him to be comfortable around others,” he added.

AN APP TO BRIDGE THE GAP

Joel told CNA during an interview that the team decided on the idea of a managed social network as platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn have proven to be “very impactful”.

Team Flippers at the VMware hackathon
(From L to R): Mr James Ng, chairperson of APSN’s Infocomm Committee; Liu Wai Ho, Joel Tio Jin Hon, Lim Jiale and Ernest Lim Jun Wei of Team Flippers from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of InfoComm Technology; and Mr Duncan Hewett, senior vice president and general manager, Asia Pacific and Japan, VMware. (Photo: VMware)

Based on the feedback by APSN advisors during the hackathon, the network will have to be managed as many APSN students are not able to assess risks “very well”.

In other words, APSN will be the ones deciding who should be on the platform with their students, whether they are potential employers, current employers or businesses looking to hire from the social service organisation, the team leader explained.

Another team member, Wai Ho, explained that the app would be split into two user interfaces - one for students, and the other for employers. The former would have functions like chat, a feed for event postings and school updates, as well as a profile page to showcase the skills that students have picked up.

Employers, too, would have a chat function to interact with prospective hires. They would also have a “Find” section to search for employees according to their businesses’ specific needs, he said.

APSN’s Mr Ng explained that the social network concept would help students create friendships beyond other people with special needs.

“When they are more confident socially, they can venture into friendships beyond the community (of those with mild intellectual disability) and be more integrated into society,” he said.

About 5,000 people and organisations will benefit from the app, said Mr Ng, who added that APSN has about 200 existing employer partners that will be part of this platform.

Team Flippers will now have to develop its mobile-based social network app with the help of VMware experts. The launch of a beta version is earmarked for August this year, the tech company said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that Mr Ooi had been bullied at the restaurant he works at. APSN has clarified that there had been an internal misunderstanding and Mr Ooi had not been bullied. The story has been amended to reflect this. 

Source: CNA/kk

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