SINGAPORE: Gan Sun Ling had dealt only with the cash register and NETS machine for most of the past three months of her internship.
But just two weeks ago, the cafe she was working at installed a smart Point of Sale system and enabled e-payment services. So, Sun Ling had to adapt quickly.
“I have to know how to key in the number, then I need to know which button to press, and I need to make sure the customer taps the card properly and make sure it's received, then the receipt will come out. For the e-payment services, the customers just need to scan the QR code by themselves, and I’ll have to check to make sure the payment goes through,” Sun Ling said.
The process sounds straightforward enough, but the training wasn’t.
That’s because 18-year-old Sun Ling has cerebral palsy, and picking up new skills can sometimes be challenging.
“We whittle everything down to a step by step approach, be it to cook or to serve customers, or to collect payment. My staff then follow the steps repeatedly. That repetition allows them to understand how to do it, and eventually, they can do it on their own,” said Geraldine Tan, Sun Ling’s supervisor.
Ms Tan is the founder of social enterprise My NoNNa’s, which runs three cafes across schools in Singapore that employ young adults with special needs.
Being in the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry where e-payment options have disrupted work processes, Ms Tan feels the urgency to upskill her workers.
“We believe in meaningful employment. So our idea is to actually train them, and employ them to be able to do tasks that are also helpful life skills. In terms of doing the job of a cashier, I think, more importantly, is to teach them how to utilise these new systems, because ultimately, you still do need some human intervention,” she said.
As Singapore sets sail on the course towards becoming a Smart Nation, the Government’s narrative has been constant – upskill or risk falling behind.
This hasn’t been lost on persons with disabilities (PWDs), who already have to swim hard against the currents of social stigma.
But the storm clouds have parted somewhat; figures from the Social and Family Development Ministry (MSF) show more than 8,600 PWDs were employed in the private and public sectors in 2017, a 9 per cent increase from 2015.
BREAKING SOCIAL STIGMA
To help them keep up, one IT trainer at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) teaches the visually impaired to use computers and smartphones.
They learn how to listen to emails, and control the computer through the keyboard instead of a mouse – digital competencies that trainer Chong Kwek Bin believes could improve their job prospects.
Mr Chong himself has low vision, which he describes as “looking through a camera that is always unfocused”.
He explained that while assistive technologies like text-to-speech tools would be useful in cases of severe impairment, some employers might be concerned about costs and choose not to hire a PWD.
“Employers often balk at the costs. But there's a free built-in magnification tool in all computers made within at least the last 10 years, which will help people with relatively mild impairment.”
He added that changes could also be as basic as improving lighting conditions and installing larger monitors.
“For those with severe needs, there’s free software available, and paid software which can be subsidised through grants from the Government,” he said.
Companies may get up to 90 per cent of funding through Workforce Singapore’s (WSG) Adapt and Grow Initiative to offset redesigning costs.
Latest figures from WSG show that over 2,000 PWDs found jobs with some 750 companies between January 2016 and March 2019, through funding and job-placement support by SG Enable.
While Mr Chong is heartened by ongoing efforts to be more inclusive, he believes the hardest hurdle to cross is workplace discrimination: “I feel that this mistrust of the visually impaired can be mitigated to a definite extent by allowing them to demonstrate their abilities. If you see that they can perform tasks which you never thought the visually impaired person can do, it should put your mind at ease.”
Mr Patrick Tay, Chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, also acknowledged that more needs to be done.
“I think employers need to realise that we have a very tight labour market situation. And we want to be inclusive and progressive, so therefore, there's a strong need for employers to relook their workplaces. As a country, I think we are not developed yet in this area of helping those with challenges.”
Mr Tay suggested studying best practices from other countries, such as tax relief or improved job matching processes using technology.
But it could also be a matter of prioritising competencies over limitations during the hiring process.
Adrian Yap is a data analyst at one of Singapore’s largest audit firms. The sharp dresser doesn’t look out of place in the fast-paced corporate world.
The only thing that sets him apart from his colleagues is the way he listens.
“At large scale meetings, I use Otter, a live capturing app. So I can read what everyone says in real time. If my colleagues speak too quickly, I’ll ask them to slow down. I also take video calls so it's easier for me to lip-read since I cannot answer phone calls.”
Mr Yap was born deaf, and he relies on a cochlear implant. But his disability was never an issue for his employer.
“Adrian’s hearing challenge is not anything that we even need to be worried about from the hiring standpoint. When we hire, we look at attributes, we look at the potential to do well in the environment that we have,” said Mr Jovi Seet, Human Capital Leader of PwC Singapore.
Mr Seet added that the company has also organised basic sign language classes and taught its employees how to identify and support those with special needs.
Standard Chartered Bank also has similar hiring practices. Ms Charlotte Thng, Head of Human Resource at SCB said the company prioritises skillsets and provides fair opportunities for both employees and applicants regardless of backgrounds.
Like PwC Singapore, it offers flexible working arrangement.
Mr Yap believes that technology can be an enabler, but there must be a two-way conversation before workplaces can truly be inclusive.
Having started his education in a deaf school before moving on to a mainstream school in Primary 5. Mr Yap describes the transition from a sheltered to a regular environment as “a culture shock”.
So he makes it a point to ask for help.
“It's important to let employers know about your condition in the beginning, so they know how to manage it. In a way, there will be a common understanding and common ground so we can work together effectively.”
GETTING AN EARLY START
For those still in school, the wheels are already in motion to give them a step up.
Pathlight School, which takes in students with autism, makes sure they learn how to use the keyboard from as early as Primary 1.
Older students and those in the vocational track are taught coding and digital journaling.
“We review our IT curriculum every year based on the Industry Transformation Map, what IMDA is doing, what kinds of skills are in demand, what our industry partners are telling us,” said Mr Wilfred Tay, who heads Pathlight’s IT and Design Academy.
He added that its students have performed well in IT competitions at both the national and international levels.
The IT classes have sparked an interest in the digital world, and about 45 per cent of Pathlight’s secondary school students have chosen IT-based CCAs like robotics and animation.
Isaac Ser, 15, is one of them, and the proficient coder already dreams of becoming a software engineer.
“Some of the skills that I learnt here are design thinking and technological knowledge. These two are really important in the IT industry, and hence this will help us adapt better and quickly in the workplace,” he said.
His mother Melinda Cheng believes such skills will open more doors for him in the future, but she is concerned that his unsuspecting nature may make him a target for bullies.
“Our special needs children thrive under a structured routine. They need the right training, structures and support, such as specific directions, for most things that they do.
“It will be a blessing if employers and colleagues at the workplace can have greater awareness and understanding to support and work with them, especially at the start of a new job, while they try to make out the processes and procedures of something new to them,” she said.
As for Isaac?
“I hope that employers can be understanding towards us. People with autism are actually people who have the same set of skills as others without autism. Just that we need more time to cope and to also understand the nature of the work.”