Recently, I participated in a research project on Singapore being an inclusive society.

I found the questions thought-provoking. I was asked: “Do you feel that Singapore is an inclusive society?” An appropriate answer would be…

…Obviously not yet.

Otherwise, there would not have been so many calls for the Government to expedite the process of making Singapore an inclusive society, especially for those with special needs.

However, I do not feel excluded. It is easy for me to feel that way because I know my limitations and do not expect the community to “sacrifice” everything to accommodate me. I accept that I have to learn to fit in by adapting to circumstances. And I attend a mainstream school, participate in all activities within my capability and enjoy my rights as a Singaporean.

I am fortunate that many people don’t see my disability but my ability.

While I have my fair share of discrimination because of my brittle bone condition, which keeps me in a wheelchair, I have not made a big deal of it. In life, many people without disability are also discriminated against.

Even so, I am sure many feel that a lot needs to happen before Singapore can qualify as an inclusive society.

I appreciate what the Government has done for people with special needs such as making it mandatory for new buildings to be handicap-friendly, accepting an increasing number of students with special needs in mainstream schools, and supporting efforts of non-government organisations.

The latest recommendations by the committee on making Singapore barrier-free for the elderly will also benefit the disabled. But this will not be enough.

There is a lot more that can be done: The Government can make education compulsory for children with special needs, improve facilities to make it possible for them to go to any school of their choice, enhance the workplace to accommodate those with disabilities, and perhaps embark on a public education programme to promote a culture of graciousness and compassion for people with special needs. Without such a culture, it will not be possible for Singapore to be an inclusive society.

I was told by the interviewer for the research project that one of her interviewees has a brother with Down Syndrome. They had to endure the disgusted and disdainful stares from the public. Is it any wonder why most people with special needs would rather remain in a safe place they call home?

Physical improvements alone cannot make Singapore an inclusive society. Only the people can make it so. By people, I mean those with and without special needs.

What is the use of handicap-friendly facilities when few people with special needs take advantage of it?

How can they feel included if they are not prepared to face the public and be part of it? They should not be afraid, feel ashamed or uncomfortable in public. They have every right to go wherever they want to. Their parents or caregivers should also encourage them to be more adventurous.

In my capacity as the Young Ambassador of the Children’s Medical Fund, I have told parents of children with disability to expose them to the world. Let them develop the courage to be seen in public. If parents do not do that, they are punishing their children inadvertently.

As for the staring public, and those not used to interacting with people with special needs, they will need to understand that the handicapped are not people with a contagious disease.

They do not deserve to be shunned or given cold stares. They are like everyone else – they have their own aspirations and wants. If you cannot support or help them, at least, empathise with them.

An inclusive society is not just about charity to the less fortunate people. It is about giving them an opportunity to prove their worth and treating them with respect. And in return, they must make an effort to be worthy of it.

(This journal entry can be found in TODAY of 23 February 2006)