A veteran advocate for the disabled community Mr Nicholas Aw has stepped down from his work with the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) this year. For the past 10 years, Mr Aw has been an active and vocal champion for the disabled community by highlighting the difficulties they face and lobbying for policy changes that would make life a little easier.
In 2011, he was elected president of the DPA. He served until 2017 when he stepped down as president but stayed on as advisor before quitting on 30 June this year. According to Today, Mr Aw remains a member of the DPA but does not intend to be actively involved in any activities by the association.
Voicing his frustrations in an interview with TODAY, the 53-year old lawyer say that the slow implementation of policies and lack of passionate leaders in the sector are major contributing factors.
Mr Aw also said that his cardiologist had advised that he reduce his workload now that he’s been diagnosed with arrhythmia – a condition where the heartbeat is irregular.
“Prior to (the diagnosis), I was speaking with the executive director at DPA about stepping down because I was irritated with what was happening. (The diagnosis) affirmed my decision to step down,” explained Mr Aw.
Another big frustration with the work he was doing was how slow change was brought on when it came to policies for the disabled. An example he gave was the changing of the car park labels in 2017 which only came five years after the first round of consultations in 2012.
“(The process) was too long and I don’t think they really heard us,” said Mr Aw.
The Car Park Label Scheme allows for drivers with disabilities to get a Class 1 label which allows them to park in specially reserved lots for any duration. But with the increasing demand of such lots, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) had to revise the scheme to ensure that those who needed the lots the most would be assured of their availability.
But this then meant that those using less ‘bulky’ mobility aids like quad-sticks and crutches no longer qualified for the Class 1 label. The disabled community was dismayed.
However according to reports, MSF had clarified that the revised criteria was not dependent on the type of mobility aid being used. Instead, a person who is certified by a doctor as needing a ‘bulky’ mobility aid would be able to qualify for a Class 1 label regardless of whether he uses the aid or not.
On that note, Mr Aw elaborated that he had been in consultation with DPA on the issue of these parking lots being abused. For example, he said some caregivers would stay beyond the allowed duration and some would use the lots anyway even when they weren’t ferrying the disabled.
Mr Aw conveyed his frustrations in the interview that the changes to the scheme were just “cosmetic” in the end and that it “didn’t really address the issue of abuse, which we’re still talking about till today”.
Leaders who lack passion
On the issue of leaders who lack passion, Mr Aw said that the car park label problems were due to leaders in the social sector who “did not think in the shoes of a disabled person.”
He continued, “There’s no passion among the people I work with — the people from the various social service organisations or voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs), and those who make decisions on policy.”
Declining to name names, Mr Aw did however blame the way leaders in the sector were developed. In particular, Mr Aw highlighted the Sun Ray scheme launched in 2014. Administered by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), the scheme develops individuals with strong leadership qualities to become leaders in social service organisations who are then rotated between agencies after 2-6 years.
According to Mr Aw, many of the leaders developed under the scheme lacked crucial on-the-ground experience and that the short rotation period wasn’t ideal for continuity in long-term policies and programmes for volunteer welfare organisations (VWO).
Responding to Mr Aw’s concerns, an NCSS spokesperson told TODAY that the Sun Ray scheme is intended to complement other leadership schemes and efforts of social service agencies to hire and develop high calibre leaders.
Said the spokesperson, “As social needs evolve and become more complex, there is a greater need for leaders from varied backgrounds to come together and draw on each other’s skillsets and new perspectives to tackle social issues.
“The scheme is thus designed to bring in people from the corporate sector in addition to those with specialised professional skills.”
Currently, there are 100 Sun Ray staff serving in 35 social service agencies, added the spokesperson. These staff have generalist and specialist backgrounds in relevant fields such as social work and occupational therapy.
As for the job rotation, NCSS said it is vital in order to give these leaders exposure to different areas in social service. They noted that the staff are rotated based on job levels and the need of the agencies, adding that rotations are reviewed in consultation with the agencies to ensure that plans aren’t disrupted.
Problems with the Purple Parade
Another point of contention for Mr Aw was the Purple Parade. It is an annual event to promote awareness and celebrate the abilities of those with special needs organised by the Central Singapore Community Development Council.
According to Mr Aw, the event had “lost its sense of purpose and direction” and did not do enough to make people understand the experiences of the disabled. He explained, “It’s become a circus.”
“When you go there, it’s very noisy, loud and infectious… a lot of people from the sector, such as those who are autistic, say that they do not want to attend as they are sensitive to the loud noise.”
Again, in response to Mr Aw’s comments, a spokesperson for Purple Parade said that the event was to not meant to replace the good work in public education and disability service of the VWOs. The spokesperson highlighted that the parade serves as a reminder to Singaporeans “to support inclusion and celebrate the abilities of persons with special needs”.
The spokesperson also added that the team would strive to make the event more disabled friendly.
Leaders afraid of taking risks
The final straw for Mr Aw was the unwillingness of leaders in the sector to involve themselves in potentially controversial issues. Mr Aw said he had sought the help of leaders from various VWOs to help a disabled young man who was facing a prison sentence for an act of road rage – they refused.
“All these VWOs have access to contacts like doctors who are specialised in the man’s disability. I had a difficult time trying to persuade various VWOs to come forward to provide doctors to write a medical report, which could have been submitted to the courts to give them a better understanding of the disability,” said Mr Aw.
Mr Aw believes that these leaders he approached were unwilling to risk their jobs and reputations by getting involved in what could be a controversial issue even though they were in the position to help. As he said it, ““They have the bullets but they don’t dare to use them.”
Mr Aw says he’s done all he can for the disabled community. “This job doesn’t pay you. It gives you a lot of grief, but we (the volunteers) are here because we care,” he lamented.
Now that he’s stepped down from his advisory role with DPA, Mr Aw wants to spend more time with his six-year old.