Supporting people with disabilities

Ready to serve: Social enterprise cafe Foreword Coffee has 32 employees across seven outlets, including 26 staffers with disabilities. — The Straits Times/ANN

More social enterprises are supporting people with disabilities despite challenges, including those from customers they serve.

Children’s enrichment centre School of Concepts, which has two branches, has 20 employees, including seven with disabilities.

Mint Lim, the founder of the social enterprise, which provides literacy programmes for children under 12, said her staff include individuals who are deaf, have visual impairment, autism or intellectual disabilities.

“We interview them and hire them based on their strengths. After one year of training, they’re productive and consistent, and contribute very well,” said Mint.

They come from schools run by the Association for Persons with Special Needs and take on roles such as a receptionist or work in telesales.

But these roles are not without issues.

Mint related an incident at a School of Concepts centre in 2020.

A mother, upset that a classroom assistant had allowed her two-year-old child to use the bathroom without donning her shoes, yelled at the young woman.

But the classroom assistant has selective mutism, an anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations.

The mother eventually pulled her daughter out of the school, but the classroom assistant continues to work there.

Figures from the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise showed that the proportion of social enterprises supporting people with disabilities rose from 24% in 2021 to 25.5% in 2022.

There are now 93 social enterprises which employ, train or create products and services for people with disabilities, up from 90 in 2021.

Lim Wei Jie, who co-founded social enterprise cafe Foreword Coffee in 2017, said its seven outlets are run by 32 employees.

The staff include 26 employees who are deaf, autistic or have intellectual disabilities or cerebral palsy.

They were referred by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, a social service agency serving people with intellectual disabilities and their families, and the charity SPD, which helps people with disabilities.

Mint and Wei Jie said new hires with disabilities often lack confidence.

“When some of them come in, they have low confidence. So we make it easy for them at first, so they can celebrate small wins and build confidence,” said Wei Jie.

The Enabling Masterplan 2030 road map launched in August set an aspirational target of 40% employment of people with disabilities by 2030, up from the current 30%.

This would mean placing about 10,000 more people with disabilities into jobs.

But the road map identified a gap as well – employers need to have the awareness, expertise and willingness to accommodate people with disabilities in the workplace.

Mint said she does this by investing in soft skills training, and providing special needs employees with a mentor and a buddy.

Wei Jie taps funds from disability agency SG Enable, such as the training grant and the job redesign grant, to procure coffee machines suited to the needs of people with disabilities who work as baristas.

Wei Jie said he offsets the higher manpower costs, from engaging job coaches for his special needs staff, with the low rental rates he secured from landlords who support the social cause.

Mint said she channels 30% of the business’ revenue back into training the special needs staff.

Despite the challenges, both said they will continue with the ventures.

Mint said of the social enterprise she set up in 2017: “Parents can see hope when our colleagues (with selective mutism) can actually speak and communicate eventually, and find a job.

“At the same time, our students learn empathy, too, when they help out our staff.” — The Straits Times/ANN

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