Asia Perspective: Supported Employment for the Physically Challenged in Singapore


We spoke to Dr. Ow Chee Chung, executive director, Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), to get his views on how SPD, a nonprofit organization in Singapore, helps the physically challenged through supported employment and skills development. Although much has been said about social enterprises and their successes, Dr. Ow believes that supported employment is also an important facet of helping the disadvantaged.

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Seamus Phan: Dr. Ow, tell us a little about SPD and how it benefits people under its care.

Dr. Ow Chee Chung: SPD is committed to working in partnership with people with physical challenges to develop their potential to the fullest so that they can be self-reliant and independent, by providing them with a range of comprehensive and quality services delivered professionally and compassionately at an affordable price. This should lead on to a better quality of life for them as they work toward being self-reliant and independent. Ultimately, the entire community benefits if every physically challenged person is able to participate in all life domains. It is inclusiveness at its zenith where everyone is a part and not apart from the community, regardless of abilities.

What are some social enterprise initiatives SPD is working on?

First, we need to put social enterprise into perspective. The Harvard Business Review (Feb ’05) reports that studies have shown that too much is made of social enterprises by citing success stories, without stating that the majority do not do well. The findings are similar to those in Singapore. Despite the uncertainty, SPD has tried to cultivate and simulate a social-enterprise environment through its Ability Enterprise, which is a training and development center for people with physical challenges. It comprises a Production Workshop, a Sheltered Workshop and a Multimedia Center, where clients will engage in on-the-job training through structured instruction. Our clients can do the work at SPD premises or at their customers’ premises.

Our clients with moderate to high functioning skills at the Enterprise will engage in a range of activities, depending on their interests and abilities, from creating customized photo albums to packing, letter-shopping, and even web designing, data-entry and video editing. With the move to a more knowledge-based economy and the pervasive use of infocomm technology, we are shifting more toward IT related training and IT social enterprise.

Some of our clients have graduated to find jobs in the open market or continue to work in the SPD Production Workshop or the Multimedia Center receiving salaries and employment benefits just like everyone here. Clients who are not suitable for open employment engage in simpler subcontracted jobs under the supported employment scheme, or more commonly known as Sheltered Employment here. They receive allowances based on the profit margins of the subcontracted work and their individual productivity level, while SPD absorbs the operating cost of the supported employment.

While the SPD Ability Enterprise does not operate in the strict social enterprise sense, it offers vocational training and development catering to the different spectrum of abilities of our clients and allowing them to maximize their potential, earning a salary or allowance as they work. More importantly, working gives our clients a sense of self worth and achievement.

Beyond helping your beneficiaries, how successful are SPD’s initiatives in the community?

Through our initiatives, we have been able to provide manpower, talents, and expertise to fulfill some contract jobs, even from open market tenders. Our clients complement the national workforce and contribute to the national productivity and bottom line. Some companies have ongoing contracts with us where our clients work at their premises (external workshops). While it may not lead to immediate integration, the presence of our clients at external locations can help foster better understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities in our community.

What is your personal vision for SPD and your clients?

As a nonprofit organization and a strong proponent of inclusiveness, we want to see people with physical challenges working in open employment, rather than setting up social enterprises to create jobs for them. For true inclusiveness to work, it takes political will of all parties concerned — government, trade union, employers, and the nonprofit sector — to look at measures and policies that will encourage employers to recruit disabled people and encourage disabled people to work in the open market.

By Seamus Phan

Based in Singapore, Seamus Phan is
one of Asia’s leading thinkers and practitioners
in business leadership, Internet security, and marketing.